Protecting religious freedom for military chaplains, service members

By Doug Carlson
Apr 19, 2012

For more than two centuries, dating back to the early days of the nation, the United States armed forces have courageously fought for the cause of freedom both here and around the world. Since that time, military chaplains have served alongside them, providing spiritual support from battlefields to bunkers to bases.

Yet one of the very freedoms our soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines have fought, bled and died to defend—religious freedom—is slowly being stripped away from them and the chaplains who minister to them. And with the battle lines of religious freedom being redrawn, the clash has set off a fight to secure that sacred freedom for our men and women in uniform.

The theater of battle, however, is not a war-torn corner of the world, but Washington’s corridors of Congress, and the artillery is not lethal weaponry, but legislation.

Having recognized a series of policies that pose increasing threats to freedom of conscience and religion in the military, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) is leading a growing congressional army on legislation to “ensure that none of our men and women in uniform—including our chaplain corps—are asked to compromise their religious and spiritual beliefs.” The Military Religious Freedom Protection Act (H.R. 3828), sponsored by the freshman lawmaker with the backing of 45 colleagues, follows a two-fold purpose: to protect the constitutional rights of conscience for both our chaplains and service members and to realign the military with federal law on traditional marriage.

The effort to strip the freedom of conscience and religion from military chaplains and service members began in earnest with the repeal of the 1993 law commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which preserved centuries-old protocol barring open homosexuals from serving in the military. That 2010 congressional action opened the door for a reinterpretation of homosexuals in the military.

In the short time since the repeal, the military has witnessed a series of setbacks for religious freedom. Days after the repeal took effect last September, the Pentagon issued a pair of memoranda opening up military installations to same-sex ceremonies—curiously avoiding the term “marriage”—and permitting military chaplains to perform the ceremonies. This violates both the spirit and the letter of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as only the union of one man and one woman. These, among other policies, are translating into trouble for those in the military with dissenting views on homosexuality.

The Military Religious Freedom Protection Act, however, would beat back the grievous impact of these actions, protecting chaplains and service members from being pressured into compromise—or silence—on their convictions against homosexuality. This legislative reinforcement for religious freedom includes protecting chaplains from being “directed, ordered, or required to perform any duty, rite, ritual, ceremony, service, or function that is contrary to the conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the chaplain or contrary to the moral principles or religious beliefs of the chaplain’s faith group.” Under the measure, neither a chaplain’s refusal to participate in such an activity nor a service member’s expression of convictions against homosexuality could be the basis for “any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment.”

The Huelskamp bill would also bring the military into compliance with DOMA. Under H.R. 3828, no military installation or any other property under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense could be used “to officiate, solemnize, or perform a marriage or marriage-like ceremony involving anything other than the union of one man with one woman.”

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, among others such as the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, is pushing for quick action on H.R. 3828. In an April 16 letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-CA) thanking him for his “leadership in defending the rights of conscience and religious freedom, as well as enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act, in our military,” ERLC President Richard Land urged the lawmaker to “remain vigilant on these fronts, including through advancement of the Military Religious Freedom Protection Act.”

The House Armed Services Committee will soon have opportunity to do so. In early May, the committee is expected to consider a Defense authorization bill, which could serve as a vehicle for the Military Religious Freedom Protection Act as an amendment. And beginning April 26, according to some reports, a subcommittee could take up the portion of the Defense bill pertinent to H.R. 3828.

As committee action soon gets underway, lawmakers ought to prioritize a reinforcement of protections on religious freedom in the military. It’s time to restore what has been the status quo on religious freedom in the armed services for centuries.

If you agree, please urge your representative to cosponsor the Military Religious Freedom Protection Act (H.R. 3828). If your representative serves on the House Armed Services Committee, he or she especially needs to hear from you.

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