What would be your response to these headlines? They were clearly calculated to stir up those who have strong feelings about the exercise of religious liberty in the military. But are they true?
The target audience of these bloggers is conservative Christians in the military and their civilian supporters. Over the past decades these conservative Christians have had almost full reign within the military and disproportionally make up most of the Chaplaincy. They also hold many senior leadership positions in the uniformed services.
In the last several years there has been closer scrutiny of the conduct of certain chaplains and commanders who have used their positions to advance their own religious beliefs. This increased oversight, and policy changes such as the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) law, allowing willing chaplains to perform same gender marriages on military installations, coupled with a likely finding that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, has these conservative Protestants, Catholics and their Orthodox Jewish allies up in arms.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), founded by USAFA graduate and former Air Force officer, Attorney Mikey Weinstein, has been in the forefront in calling public attention to what they believe is the military's violation of the separation of church and state mandated by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, otherwise known as the Establishment Clause. Weinstein is outspoken, unyielding and determined in has advocacy for the more than 30,000 military members of his organization who are mostly Christians. Some of his writings, such as his recent HuffPost blog are often decried as highly offensive and anti-Christian.
Why the outcry over a meeting Weinstein participated in with Department of Defense (DoD) officials in April? Simply put, these religious conservatives are using this event as a rallying point to energize their grass roots base. They falsely claim that Weinstein and MRFF were hired as consultants. They contend he is acting in an official capacity advising the DoD on religious freedom issues. These falsehoods were not enough to rile up the base, so they then suggested Weinstein was working with Pentagon officials to develop courts-martial procedures to criminally prosecute Christians who express or share their faith. Again, not a shred of evidence to back this up.
The real issue in all this dust up, in addition to a perceived loss of power and spooling up the base by these conservative Christians, is the question of what is proselytizing and when, if ever, is it proper in the military? This is not a new issue in the military. In fact, the regulations addressing this complicated question have been in effect for decades. First, contrary to these false claims, there is absolutely no prohibition for people of faith to talk about their beliefs with their peers. This is clearly protected speech under both the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment. If a service member is uncomfortable with any discussion, religious or otherwise, the remedy is simple-if off duty, ask the speaker to stop, if they won't, then leave the discussion. In a duty setting, the offended service member has one additional step and that is to complain to the command regarding a hostile work environment.
Where this gets dicey is when those in positions of authority speak of their religious beliefs in any setting that suggests command endorsement of those views or places subordinates in the awkward position of disagreeing with a commander or any person of senior rank. Here there is a tension between the Establishment Clause and the protections afforded all service members under both the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses. There is no simple answer and generally what is considered is the speakers status (i.e. rank, position) the listeners status (i.e. junior, subordinate) and the context (i.e. in uniform, official function, mandatory attendance) surrounding the speech. Unfortunately, the histories of violations are legion from the USAFA scandals of the last decade, to an active duty Army General, in uniform publically stating his God is superior to a Muslim God, to mandatory prayer at unit formations. In addition to being a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, there is a good military reason for this prohibition. It is the same as for regulations against fraternization. Use of rank, power and position to advance any personal agenda has a deleterious impact on good order and discipline and is therefore prohibited.
What about Chaplains? For decades conservative Christians have not hidden the fact they view the military as a mission field. What better place to find lonely young people, away from home, often overseas and in harms way, to bring the salvation message of Jesus Christ? And if the chaplains were just ministers priests, rabbis or Imams, not military officers being paid by the American taxpayer that would be fine. But because they are, like their line officer counterparts, in positions of authority, they too are constrained by the Establishment Clause. So why even have military chaplains if they can't talk about their faith?
Many conservative Christian chaplains believe they have a First Amendment right to teach the gospel to any service member, whether that individual wants to be saved or not. In reality, The Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, an organization made up of veterans, retired and active military chaplains, lay people and civilian clergy contend this is wrong and unconstitutional. According to the Forum, what they are doing is placing their free exercise of religion above that of the service members they are sworn to serve. This violates not only the Establishment Clause but also their duty to perform or provide. Their conduct threatens the survival of the military chaplaincy.
Of course, chaplains can preach whatever they choose to those of their own faith and those who voluntarily come to them to discuss matters of religion. It is in a pluralistic environment where this becomes complicated. Chaplains are required to either perform or provide for all service members, even those with no faith. By way of example-what is a Southern Baptist chaplain to do if he is asked by a gay Marine officer to perform a same gender wedding at the Naval Academy Chapel? Under his faith tradition he is not permitted to perform such a rite and is not required to do so by the military. What he is duty bound to do is to provide a chaplain who will conduct the ceremony.
As evidenced by the falsehoods contained in these blogs and further published by conservative media, truth continues to be a casualty in these religious wars. As the Forum points out, so is the integrity of the Chaplain Corps and its continued existence.