Following an uproar over a Defense Department statement saying that military personnel could be court-martialed for sharing their faith, the Pentagon has backed down on that position and now says soldiers are free to proselytize, as long as they don’t harass others. “Service members can share their faith,” clarified Navy Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen in a statement, “but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs.”
Earlier the Defense Department had released an alarming statement saying: “Religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense…. Court martials and non-judicial punishments are decided on a case-by-case basis.” That statement appeared to come as the result of an April 24 meeting between military officials and Mikey Weinstein of the atheist group Military Religious Freedom Foundation, in which Weinstein pressured Air Force officials to enforce a policy that supposedly bans Air Force personnel from openly expressing their religious faith. The Defense Department has reportedly turned to Weinstein’s group to hammer out policies on religious expression in the military.
Weinstein has gained notoriety for his aggressive campaign to sanitize the military of overt faith expressions by service members. He told Fox News that “until the Air Force or Army or Navy or Marine Corps punishes a member of the military for unconstitutional religious proselytizing and oppression, we will never have the ability to stop this horrible, horrendous, dehumanizing behavior.” Weinstein was referring to examples of supposed religious persecution within the ranks, and said that his group “would love to see hundreds of prosecutions to stop this outrage of fundamentalist religious persecution.”
The outcry from chaplains and religious leaders over Weinstein’s rhetoric prompted the Defense Department to issue its updated statement backing down from implying that service members might be targeted for sharing their faith. According to Charisma News, the clarification came after the conservative legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking a clarification from the Defense Department on the issue.
“Members of our military should not be denied the very freedoms they fight to defend,” explained ADF Legal Counsel Joseph La Rue. “Freedom of religion and speech are paramount among those freedoms.”
La Rue noted that since there is little evidence of a crisis concerning overt religious proselytizing in the military, “we are still troubled over what motivated the original comments” from the Pentagon. He added that his group is seeking “to ensure that the Pentagon does not deny members of the armed services the basic freedoms that the Constitution guarantees all Americans.”
In his updated statement Lieutenant Commander Christensen insisted that the Defense Department “has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution. The Department makes reasonable accommodations for all religions and celebrates the religious diversity of our service members.” He added that “when religious harassment complaints are reported, commanders take action based on the gravity of the occurrence on a case by case basis.” He did not elaborate on the actions that might be taken, but the previous Defense Department statement seemed to indicate that penalties could range from non-judicial punishment to a full court-martial.
In an e-mail Christensen explained that the Defense Department would work “to ensure that all service members are free to exercise their constitutional right to practice their religion — in a manner that is respectful of other individuals’ rights to follow their own belief systems; and in ways that are conducive to good order and discipline; and that do not detract from accomplishing the military mission.”
Nonetheless, at least one veteran military leader is concerned about a crackdown on religious expression among service members. Speaking at a gathering on Capitol Hill during the May 2 National Day of Prayer, Rear Admiral William Lee of the U.S. Coast Guard said he is convinced that there is an increasing effort to shut down expressions of faith throughout the military. “As one general so aptly put it,” Lee told his audience, “they expect us to check our religion in at the door — don’t bring that here. Leaders like myself are feeling the constraints of rules and regulations and guidance issued by lawyers that put us in a tighter and tighter box regarding our constitutional right to express our religious faith.”
Lee recalled that in 2012 there were a record high number of 349 military suicides, and recalled the story of a young soldier who had attempted suicide but survived. “When I looked at that young man and heard his story, the rules say, ‘Send him to the chaplain,’” Lee said. But “my heart said, ‘give this man a Bible.’”
The retired admiral pointed out that under changing military policy giving a soldier a Bible would be potentially punishable. He expressed his shock that an officer could now be reprimanded for “as much as whispering to a young man who is on his last hope — that there is hope. That I can just simply whisper, ‘here is the answer – take it home – I’ll talk about it if you want to.’”
He noted that “the lawyers tell me that if I do that, I’m crossing the line,” but added that “I’m glad I’ve crossed the line so many times.”