'Conscience Protections': A License to Bully

At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a company First Sergeant in the famed 82nd Airborne Division steps into a Company orderly room filled with junior soldiers both male and female. "I want all of you to know that I don't like this politically correct idea of allowing women in combat. As a matter of fact, I don't think there should be any women in this man's Army. The Bible is very clear that women have specific roles and those don't include fighting in the military. That's what I believe."

On board the USS Ronald Reagan, a devout Muslim F-18 squadron executive officer announces to a ready room full of fighter pilots. "In my opinion homosexuality is an abomination. I strongly object to any gay or lesbian being in the Navy and a member of this fighter squadron. Repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a big mistake. I wish we could return to the day when these perverts were arrested, convicted and sent to the brig. These are my sincerely held religious beliefs."

Most people, particularly those in uniform, would recoil at these hypothetical situations where religious beliefs trump good order and discipline. While these two examples are hypothetical, just this year we saw a Coast Guard Rear Admiral at a conservative conference thumb his nose at military regulations when he made a speech in uniform that was clearly out of line and unprofessional.

As offensive as the conduct of RADM William "Dean" Lee and the "leaders" in these two hypotheticals may be, if the proposed so-called "conscience protection" clause now included in the House version of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) becomes law, I would submit that these service members would be protected from any accountability for their speech or actions.

The present law which was part of the 2013 NDAA already requires the military to accommodate the beliefs of a service member (including chaplains) reflecting the service member's conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs, in so far as practicable. It prohibits use of such beliefs for any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training or assignment. This law does not protect all speech or conduct of an individual and preserves the authority to take disciplinary or administrative actions against those who threaten good order and discipline.

The new amendment would change those who threaten to those who actually harm good order and discipline. This clause is so broad as to include every service member not just the ultra conservative Chaplains, both actively serving and retired, who are leading the charge.

This proposed amendment requires that in order to stop this conduct or hold the offending service member accountable, the commander must be able to prove that the speech or activity causes actual harm. This so-called "conscience provision" is in reality a license to bully.

But what is really going on? The same conservative groups who opposed the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law, are pushing this amendment. They lost that battle and now are trying to create a backdoor means to return to the privileged status they enjoyed before repeal. They want to turn back the clock to a time when they could, with impunity, attack LGBT service members who were forced to serve in silence. This effort is far more threatening to the force today because they are casting a net so wide that it includes not only their real targets, LGBT service members, but also every other service member who does not embrace their conservative religious beliefs.

As a matter of leadership, commanders and senior Non Commissioned Officers could face a real crisis. It doesn't take much imagination to see how those who do not share the particular beliefs of these "leaders" might be offended, hurt and simply refuse to work with or follow those who were so outspoken and offensive. The likely impact on a unit's ability to carry out its mission should be apparent. There can be no doubt that if these so-called "conscience protection" provisions become law it will have negative consequences on unit morale, discipline and overall military readiness.