- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

U.S. troops are fighting to defend the First Amendment but are not being allowed to fully exercise it, a member of the House Committee on Armed Services said Wednesday.

Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican, criticized the military for appearing “zealous to shut down expressions of faith.”

“This is our military telling service members to raise their hands and ask permission before they dare to utter an expression of faith,” Mr. Fleming said during a speech at the Family Research Council.

Mr. Fleming, who served six years as a medical officer in the Navy, said there is much more work to be done to reach a point where expressions of faith are welcome across the various branches of service.

“The bottom line is that we do have more to do,” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “We have seen a series of problems in the military that have given rise to a number of concerns and direct congressional action. Congress has twice passed statutes that require the military to be more accommodating to religious beliefs and practices.”

In January the Pentagon relaxed its uniform policy to allow accommodations for service members to grow beards and wear head coverings as part of expressions of their faith. The change largely affected Muslims and Sikhs, and while advocates say it is a step in the right direction, work remains to close loopholes the change created.

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“If you’re requesting an accommodation, you had to comply with the existing guidelines until and unless an accommodation is granted; that’s a Catch-22,” said Rajdeep Singh, policy director for the New York-based Sikh Coalition, which lobbied for three soldiers to express their Sikh faith. “The reason why people are requesting an accommodation in the first place is because they cannot shave their beard.”

In an email to The Washington Times, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said 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,” Cmdr. Christensen said. “We 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.”

However, Mr. Fleming voiced concern that “the very people who are generating these regulations and lack of accommodations” are the same people who hold authority to enforce them.

Mr. Blomberg suggested that troops speaking out through advocates like the Sikh Coalition can lead to change.

“Speak out and say ‘listen, you need to fix this,’ have the military responsive to that,” he said. “It’s a give and take that’s not been as healthy lately. There’s an unwillingness to address certain issues at certain times. But generally speaking that’s been helpful in yielding positive results.”

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He also suggested that military leaders consider the impact their actions could have.

“The military is very much a traditional top-down run institution,” Mr. Blomberg said. “It’s really important that when senior officials [in the service] are making statements, they are very accommodating, very welcoming of religious expression. Because if the message sent below is ‘don’t go near here,’ you get in trouble.”

The top brass setting an example is one plan both sides of religious liberty can stand on, but that’s where the similarities end.

“The standards set by commanders make a huge amount of difference,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“I think there is a way to accommodate everyone, as long as you can eliminate a couple of problems. There are continued examples of undue influence when it comes to imposing religion on people in your command. It still happens, and when it does happen it should be vigorously eliminated.”

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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