Lawmakers yesterday said Christian chaplains throughout the branches of the military are being restricted in how they can pray, and President Bush should step in to protect religious freedom.
“We’re giving the president an opportunity to use the Constitution to guarantee the First Amendment rights of our chaplains,” said Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican.
He is circulating a letter to send to Mr. Bush explaining that Christian military chaplains are being told to use general terms when they pray publicly, and to not mention the name of Jesus.
“This is a huge issue with many of the chaplains in the military,” said Mr. Jones, whose letter has 35 lawmakers’ signatures so far, and will be sent later this week.
He cited a letter from one Army chaplain who said it was made clear in his chaplain training course that it is offensive and against Army policy to publicly pray in the name of Jesus, and he later was rebuked for doing so.
“Much to my great shame, there have been times when I did not pray in my Savior’s name,” the chaplain wrote.
Mr. Jones cited similar complaints from the Marine Corps and Navy.
The lawmakers said chaplains of all faiths should be able to pray as they wish, since diversity is the very reason the military hired them in the first place.
“Chaplains ought to be able to pray based on who they are,” said Rep. Mike McIntyre, North Carolina Democrat. “Otherwise, it’s hypocrisy.”
There has been much focus recently on proposed Air Force guidelines that some say unfairly would restrict Air Force chaplains’ prayers, but lawmakers yesterday said the problem extends beyond that branch.
“We’re seeing the same pattern … and it’s a pattern of hostility to freedom of speech,” said Rep. Todd Akin, Missouri Republican. “The chaplains have complained, and it’s been increasing and more widespread and not only limited to the Air Force.”
The proposed Air Force guidelines say prayers should not be offered during official military staff meetings, but that a brief, nonsectarian prayer may be offered in nonroutine military ceremonies, celebrations or events. An Air Force spokesman said the guidelines are not final and that the Air Force is “still soliciting feedback.”
Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd said that branch’s chaplains may speak freely if they are addressing a service of their specific faith, but in general military assemblies or services they should take a more general approach.
“They call for a slightly different approach,” she said of general gatherings. “The Army wants chaplains to show respect for all faiths.”
But Mr. Jones said it’s not fair that any chaplain — Christian, Muslim or otherwise — should have to speak in such a way as to mask his beliefs. Mr. Jones’ letter asks Mr. Bush to issue an executive order allowing all military chaplains to pray according to their faiths.
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said she would withhold comment on the issue until she sees Mr. Jones’ letter.
“It’s astonishing to me that we’re even having this conversation,” said Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican. “I hope the president will respond. I think he will.”