Back in June, when the House passed its first version of the FY14 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the anti-gay crowd was doing a victory dance over the fact that the House version of the bill included Rep. John Fleming's (R-LA) so-called "religious freedom" amendment. If passed, the language of the Fleming amendment, the real purpose of which was anything but religious freedom, would essentially have taken away the ability of military commanders to do anything to stop anti-gay harassment and discrimination within their ranks until it rose from the level of merely being a threat to good order and discipline to the level of already having done "actual harm" to good order and discipline. In other words, it was a sneaky way of reversing the protections gained by LGB service members with the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" by preventing military commanders from doing anything to stop anti-gay "actions and speech" (under the guise of religious freedom, of course) until it was too late and "actual harm" had already been done.
Meanwhile, also back in June, a Senate version of the "religious freedom" amendment, introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), was being voted on by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sen. Lee's amendment, however, was nothing like Rep. Fleming's House amendment. Most importantly, it did not contain anything like the Fleming amendment's language that would strip military commanders of the ability to stop anti-gay harassment and discrimination.
When Sen. Lee's amendment was passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rep. Fleming, along with a coalition of anti-gay fundamentalist Christian organizations that had been formed to launch a propaganda campaign promoting the Fleming amendment, immediately began praising the Senate committee's passing of Lee's version of the amendment. Part of the propaganda was to imply that the Lee amendment was the same as the Fleming amendment, accomplished by describing it as the Senate's "corresponding" or "companion" amendment to the Fleming amendment, but never saying what the language of the Lee amendment actually was. The point of this deception was to push the notion that Fleming's "open season on military gays" amendment had bipartisan support. Fleming's amendment did not have bipartisan support, unless you consider two of the twenty-eight Democrats on the committee voting in favor of it to be bipartisan support, but Lee's Senate version -- being very different from Fleming's amendment -- had gotten yes votes from six Democrats and one Independent, passing with a vote of 19-7 in the Democratically controlled Senate committee.
So important was pushing the erroneous notion that the Fleming and Lee amendments were the same, and claiming that both had bipartisan support, that Rep. Fleming and Sen. Lee put out a joint statement on June 17, which appeared on Rep. Fleming's website with the heading "Fleming Applauds Passage of Religious Liberty Amendment in Senate Committee" in big red letters, and a sub-heading, in italicized big red letters, "These bipartisan votes strongly reaffirm the vision of our Founding Fathers that free speech, including that which expresses one's religious beliefs, must not be compromised."
Fast forward six months to last week. With the deadline for the House to pass the NDAA looming, the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees hashed out a final, compromise version of the bill. This final version of the bill, which was voted on and passed by the House on Thursday, did not contain Fleming's "religious freedom" amendment. It contained Sen. Lee's Senate version.
Now, since the Senate amendment really wasn't the same as Fleming's House amendment, a change in talking points was necessary. The new talking points were revealed on Friday, when Rep. Fleming appeared on "Washington Watch," the radio show hosted by Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, the organization that had spearheaded that coalition of anti-gay organizations that was formed back in June to promote the Fleming Amendment. Now, after months of constantly implying that the House's Fleming amendment and the Senate's Lee amendment were the same, Fleming and Perkins had to point out that they were not the same, with Fleming saying that the Senate amendment that they had been praising was "not as strong as we would like" and that they "plan in the next year and maybe the next two years, depending on who takes over the Senate, to tighten that language, strengthen it, and take it all the way to a touchdown."
So, how do they explain to their followers -- who for the past six months have been under the desired impression that the House and Senate amendments were the same -- that the two amendment are suddenly not the same, and that they now don't like the Senate amendment? Well, they blame a democrat, of course, and imply that the Senate amendment they had praised had been changed in the final bill, with Fleming telling Perkins, "we had to cooperate with some other viewpoints, likely -- and Sen. Levin, a Democrat -- and so it's not as strong as we would like."
In reality, Sen. Lee's amendment wasn't changed at all. With the exception of rearranging the phrases to put them into the final bill language, the amendment that passed in the final bill is exactly the same Lee amendment that Fleming and his cohorts were praising when the Senate Armed Services Committee passed it six months ago.
This was the language from last year's NDAA (Section 533) that was being amended:
"The Armed Forces shall accommodate the beliefs of a member of the armed forces reflecting the conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the member and, in so far as practicable, may not use such beliefs as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment."
This was Sen. Lee's amendment, as passed and reported by the Senate Armed Services Committee back in June:
"The committee recommends a provision that would amend section 533 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (Public Law 112-239) to require the armed forces to accommodate individual expressions of belief of service members unless such expressions could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline."
And here's the final language (Section 532) that appears in this year's NDAA:
"Unless it could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline, the Armed Forces shall accommodate individual expressions of belief of a member of the armed forces reflecting the sincerely held conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the member and, in so far as practicable, may not use such expression of belief as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment."
As you can see, every word of Sen. Lee's amendment -- the amendment that was so enthusiastically praised by Fleming and his coalition of anti-gay supporters back in June -- made it into the final bill that was passed by the House last week.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), the organization I work for, actually sees the greater specificity of the new language as a good thing. We fully agree with the assessment made by the Religion News Service the other day that "the final law weakened gains social conservatives made a year ago," and that "[t]he new language should also make it easier for military leaders to protect the rights of gays and lesbians in the military."
In addition to the Lee amendment, there are two other religious freedom related sections in this year's NDAA, both of which we at MRFF also welcome and see as potentially very positive:
SEC. 533. INSPECTOR GENERAL INVESTIGATION OF ARMED FORCES COMPLIANCE WITH REGULATIONS FOR THE PROTECTION OF RIGHTS OF CONSCIENCE OF MEMBERS OF THE ARMED FORCES AND THEIR CHAPLAINS.
(a) Investigation Into Compliance; Report- Not later than 18 months after the date on which regulations are issued implementing the protections afforded by section 533 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (Public Law 112-239; 126 Stat. 1727; 10 U.S.C. prec. 1030 note), as amended by section 532, the Inspector General of the Department of Defense shall submit to the congressional defense committees a report--
(1) setting forth the results of an investigation by the Inspector General during that 18-month period into the compliance by the Armed Forces with the elements of such regulations on adverse personnel actions, discrimination, or denials of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment for members of the Armed Forces based on conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs; and
(2) identifying the number of times during the investigation period that the Inspector General of the Department of Defense or the Inspector General of a military department was contacted regarding an incident involving the conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of a member of the Armed Forces.
(b) Consultation- In conducting any analysis, investigation, or survey for purposes of this section, the Inspector General of the Department of Defense shall consult with the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, as appropriate.
SEC. 534. SURVEY OF MILITARY CHAPLAINS VIEWS ON DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE POLICY REGARDING CHAPLAIN PRAYERS OUTSIDE OF RELIGIOUS SERVICES.
(a) Survey Required- The Secretary of Defense shall conduct a survey among a statistically valid sample of military chaplains of the regular and reserve components of the Armed Forces, to be selected at random, to assess whether--
(1) restrictions placed on prayers offered in a public or non-religious setting have prevented military chaplains from exercising the tenets of their faith as prescribed by their endorsing faith group; and
(2) those restrictions have had an adverse impact on the ability of military chaplains to fulfill their duties to minister to members of the Armed Forces and their dependents.
(b) Deadline for Completion- The Secretary of Defense shall complete the survey required by subsection (a) within one year after the date of the enactment of this Act.
(c) Submission of Results- Not later than 90 days after completing the survey required by subsection (a), the Secretary of Defense shall submit to the Committees on Armed Services of the Senate and the House of Representatives a report containing--
(1) the survey questionnaire; and
(2) the results of the survey.
Why does MRFF welcome this investigation and survey? Because they might just be the way to expose the steady stream of lies and propaganda about Christians in the military being persecuted for their beliefs coming from members of Congress like Rep. Fleming and organizations like the Family Research Council (FRC) and the other member organizations of their so-called Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition.
Back in July, the FRC released its first edition of "A Clear and Present Danger: The Threat to Religious Liberty in the Military," a report chock full of alleged incidents of Christians in the military being persecuted for their religious beliefs. We at MRFF, being familiar with almost all of the incidents listed in the FRC's report, many because of MRFF's direct involvement in them, know that the FRC's claims of Christian persecution in the military are simply not true. In fact, we are currently working on our own report here at MRFF (working title: "A Clear and Present Load of Crap") that will thoroughly debunk the FRC's report claim by claim.
In addition to the Inspector General investigation called for by the NDAA, Rep. Fleming told Tony Perkins during his appearance on "Washington Watch" that he "plan[s] to have hearings beginning in January/February time frame where we're going to be highlighting all these abuses of religious liberty."
There is nothing MRFF would like better than to see Rep. Fleming's and the FRC's claims of Christian persecution investigated. So, bring on the hearings and investigations!
MRFF will, of course, be supplying the Inspector General, the Secretary of Defense, and the members of Congress who really do support religious freedom with our "Clear and Present Load of Crap" report (which I promise to think of a better title for) to aid them in any investigations.