Battle underway to protect military’s religious freedom
Much has been said across the airwaves about behind-the-scenes negotiations to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. The consensus, it seems, is that no one knows what deal—if any—will surface before a series of tax increases and spending cuts hits the nation on Jan. 1.
Little, though, has been said about another set of important negotiations taking place on Capitol Hill: whether to ensure much-needed religious freedom protections for military chaplains and service members. And that decision, critically important to thousands of people of faith serving in the armed services, will likely be made within the next several days.
The issue of concern is the growing need to secure protections for chaplains and service members from facing discrimination or career-damaging—and potentially career-ending—reprimands for holding to their deeply held religious convictions pertaining to homosexuality. The logical legislative vehicle to carry such provisions supported by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is a Defense authorization bill. The House-passed bill includes these desired religious freedom provisions. The Senate bill does not. Now a House-Senate conference committee, tasked with hammering out the differences, is deciding their future.
On Thursday, ERLC President Richard Land sent a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, describing the religious freedom protections as “critically important,” saying “the Pentagon’s policies actively pressure these brave men and women to choose between serving their country and holding true to their deeply-held religious faith.”
“As House and Senate conferees finalize a conference report on the National Defense Authorization Act,” Land wrote, “we strongly urge you to include provisions that protect the rights of conscience and religious freedom, as well as the enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act, in our military.”
The key language backed by the ERLC and other religious organizations is drawn from the Military Religious Freedom Act (S. 3526/H.R. 3828). This measure, sponsored by Sens. Roger Wicker (R-MS) and James Inhofe (R-OK) and Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), would serve as much-needed reinforcement against an encroachment on the military’s constitutionally-protected religious freedom. It would also help realign the military with DOMA, the 1996 law that defines marriage as only the union between a man and a woman.
Among its specific components, the Military Religious Freedom Act would protect chaplains from being forced “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 the chaplain’s endorsing 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 bill would also bring the military into compliance with DOMA. Under the bill, 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.”
Earlier this week, Land called upon concerned citizens to help garner support among senators for the Military Religious Freedom Act. “The men and women in all ranks of our armed forces—including in the chaplaincy—need your voice today to prompt the Senate likewise to protect the most sacred and basic freedoms,” Land wrote in an action alert on Tuesday.
Much of what brought Congress to this moment can be traced back to September 2011. That’s when repeal of the law commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” officially took effect, thereby allowing homosexuals to serve in the military openly for the first time in our nation’s history. What quickly followed—less than two weeks later—was a pair of memos from the Pentagon authorizing same-sex “marriage” ceremonies on military installations and giving chaplains the green light to perform them.
Now, a little more than a year later, those controversial decisions have triggered the present battle over religious freedom. And the U.S. Capitol is serving as the theater of action.
“In practice, these policies pose a severe threat to the religious freedom of our military’s chaplains and service members,” Land wrote in the letter to Sen. McCain. “Many of them profess religious beliefs that prevent them from condoning or accepting some of the lifestyle choices and behaviors of those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community (LGBT). Yet there is growing evidence confirming that service members who hold these religious beliefs face discrimination and career penalties if they remain true to their consciences.
“In light of these devastating policies, we believe it necessary and urgent that Congress act to protect the religious freedom of all soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, and the chaplains who minister to them,” Land added. “In addition to the sizable Southern Baptist representation among the chaplaincy and the military at large, we stand alongside chaplains and service members of all faiths, and of no faith, to protect their freedoms of conscience and religious expression.”
And the Defense bill, it would appear, is the last line of defense this year in protecting the embattled freedom of religion in our armed forces.
If you support protecting religious freedom in the military, please contact your two senators and urge them to cosponsor the Military Religious Freedom Act (S. 3526) and to support its inclusion in the Defense authorization bill.