Christians under siege push for more freedom of expression in military

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There are famously no atheists in foxholes, but some conservatives say that the American military is not giving a fair shake to soldiers, sailors and Marines who want to practice their faith and express their beliefs more openly.

The Family Research Council and more than a dozen other conservative and pro-family groups this month announced a renewed push in Congress for stronger legislative protection for religious military personnel to combat what they say is a threat to religious liberty in the nation’s armed forces. A report from the Family Research Council documented a range of events in the military — such as one in which an Air Force officer was told to remove a Bible from his desk — that the group said exposed a “growing hostility to religion.”

Critics say the charges are overblown and are part of a covert move to promote evangelical Christianity within the ranks, but the coalition says it has collected a number of examples of violations of religious liberty and expression inside the military.

“There is a growing list of cases and incidents that point to the fact that religious liberty in our nation’s military is under attack,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.

One event detailed in the report described a soldier who was reprimanded for serving fare from Chick-fil-A — known for its owners’ strong Christian beliefs — and for making statements related to the federal law on same-sex marriage at his promotion party. Religious leaders have had invitations to speak at military events abruptly withdrawn, and military personnel have been ordered to remove religious signs and symbols.

Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican, proposed an amendment last month to the 2014 defense authorization bill that specifically protects the “actions and speech” of religious personnel, rather than just their “beliefs.” The third-term lawmaker said the amendment was needed because chaplains feel restricted in how they can pray and preach, and officers are being warned not to display their faith openly.

The Obama administration issued a statement opposing Mr. Fleming’s amendment, saying it limited the ability of commanders to address “potentially problematic speech and actions within their units” and would have a negative overall effect on military units. But the full House supported the amendment and a similar provision, co-sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, and Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, has been approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The drive is being met by a countercampaign from secular activists, who have proposed reform to fight what they say is a growing religious activism that pushes Christianity onto military personnel with different beliefs.

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said the complaints of hostility to religion in the military are in reality an example of “Christian privilege” that leads to the religious oppression of non-Christians.

“From a position of alarmism, they have caused a lot of unnecessary fear and concern within and outside the military,” said Mr. Torpy, an Iraq War veteran who identifies himself as a humanist. “They’ve pushed for Christian privilege under the guise of religious freedom.”

Faith activists cite concern that religious soldiers and personnel will be unable to exercise their beliefs freely without fear of retaliation or damage to their careers. Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, which is a part of the Family Research Council’s new coalition, said he recently learned of a commander who is worried of being subject to punishment because he “could not in good conscience” cut the cake at a gay pride event.

“He gave them the space for their event, allowed them to have the event, but said, ‘I cannot participate.’ There are some in the military who would see that as an opportunity for a complaint because the commander was showing prejudice against the group, but in actuality he was just exercising his faith conscience,” said Mr. Crews, a retired chaplain who served in the U.S. Army for 28 years.

Some in the religious community disapprove of the focus on Christianity. The Rev. Sarah Lammert of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a liberal religious organization that stresses ethical living and human worth, said the Family Research Council’s report is simply a fundraising attempt and Mr. Fleming’s amendment is “unnecessary.”

“I think the rights of Christian chaplains are already protected. And in fact, the numbers of Christian chaplains in the military far outreach the demand for those particular faith groups. It’s disproportionate,” said Ms. Lammert. “No one faith should be given a spotlight over the others.”

Ms. Lammert said the concerns of Christian military personnel are a nonissue and that the real challenge for the military will be to protect the rights of gay troops and to promote more religious and gender diversity within the military.

In a statement emailed to The Washington Times, Pentagon spokesman Nate Christensen stressed that the Defense Department celebrates religious diversity and that military personnel have the full right to exercise their religious beliefs, as long as doing so does not negatively affect the military’s mission or other individuals’ rights.

“Even then, the department seeks a reasonable religious accommodation for the service member. In general, service members may share their faith with other service members, but may not forcibly attempt to convert others of any faith or no faith to their own beliefs,” Mr. Christensen said.

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