House Armed Services Committee Hearing: Religious Freedom in the Military

Nov 26th, 2014 | By | Category: News Posts

MilitaryPrayerBy the Congressional Prayer Caucus

Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus participated in a hearing last week on religious accommodations in the military.  The hearing was chaired by Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), who was joined by Reps. Fleming (LA-04), Forbes (VA-04), Hartzler (MO-04), Huelskamp (KS-01), Jones (NC-03), and Lamborn (CO-05).

The panel of witnesses included Michael Berry, Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs at the Liberty Institute, Dr. Ron Crews, Executive Director of Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, and Travis Weber, Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council.

In his opening remarks, Chairman Wilson stated, “One of the strengths of our military is its diversity of belief and mutual respect.  As such, it has been important for Congress to ensure that the appropriate statutory and regulatory guidance is in place, and that DoD and the military services are implementing such guidance in order for the services to meet the important spiritual and religious needs of the troops.”

Concerns of a chilling effect on personal expressions of faith have persisted because of repeated incidents where a servicemember has been questioned or penalized for a religious statement.  These concerns were aggravated when the Air Force Academy oversaw the removal of a Bible verse from a cadet’s dorm room whiteboard after someone complained, stating that the verse was incompatible with leadership principles and with the religious expression policy in Air Force Instruction 1-1.  That policy has since been revised to significantly improve protections for free exercise in the Air Force.

Rep. Lamborn, whose district encompasses the Air Force Academy and who spearheaded an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act this year requiring the Air Force to revise AFI 1-1, expressed a concern that, “if taken to an extreme, someone who is a leader and has a religious component to his or her life . . . and to not be able to ever discuss that would be dishonest with other people.”

Several Members asked witnesses to tease out the difference between being offended by someone else’s beliefs and being coerced to support a specific religious perspective.  In response to a question from Prayer Caucus Co-Chairman Rep. Forbes, Mr. Weber highlighted the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the Court made clear in its Establishment Clause analysis of legislative prayer that “offense does not equate to coercion.”  Mr. Weber also pointed out that “if you look at the dissent . . . the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that religion had a role in public life.”

“You’re basically looking at a situation here where these individuals are stating what they believe, and based on that we’re calling that coercion, and then we’re starting to restrict that kind of freedom of expression and belief,” stated Rep. Forbes.  “Nobody is defending an individual trying to proselytize or coerce.  We’re simply trying to say we need a protection—just because you wear a uniform doesn’t mean that you no longer have the right to express your freedom of your faith.”

Dr. Fleming agreed, stating, “There is clearly a double standard being applied. . . .  I have yet to hear one Member of Congress say that we should have a law that allows or promotes in any way proselytizing.  No one has an interest in that, and that becomes simply a straw man argument.”

Rep. Hartzler asked Dr. Crews whether the guidance issued by the Department of Defense, implementing the conscience protections passed by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act, has made a positive difference in how military chaplains are supervised.  According to Dr. Crews, though DoD has implemented guidance on these protections, chaplains and their endorsers have yet to see how it will be communicated and taught within the branches.

Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus have been instrumental in exercising oversight to protect religious freedom for members of the military, and they are committed to working with military leaders to positively reinforce an environment that cultivates religion in the military, rather than attacking it.

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