Congress Must Tell Pentagon to Protect Troops' First Amendment Rights
The Pentagon has now fully reversed its previous declarations and is now claiming it has no policy either way on whether proselytizing is allowed in the military. Given the contradictory statements on this issue and other instances of disallowing Christian expression in the military (including an Air Force ban on sharing the gospel), it’s imperative Congress permanently secure enduring protections for those serving in the armed forces.
Last week, Breitbart News broke the story that Pentagon officials held a meeting on Apr. 23, 2013, with an anti-Christian extremist, Mikey Weinstein, who compared sharing the gospel in the military to rape; the Pentagon told Fox News, “Religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense.” Then the Pentagon issued a bizarre statement that evangelizing is permitted but proselytizing is forbidden; the statement contradicts the dictionary definitions of those words. Evangelizing is Christian proselytizing, so banning all proselytizing includes all evangelism.
In a possible attempt to distract from that declaration, Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen later objected that one media outlet mistakenly added to the sentence quoted above another separate statement that service members could be court-martialed on a case-by-case basis. He claimed his court-martial statement was not referring to proselytizing.
But that’s beside the point that forbidding sharing the gospel is unconstitutional, regardless of the punishment it brings. Government censorship of religious speech is the story here; Weinstein said, “We would love to see hundreds of prosecutions to stop this outrage of fundamentalist religious persecution.” Given that the Pentagon has met repeatedly with Weinstein, people are understandably apprehensive about how service members could be punished for sharing their faith.
Now The Hill quotes the Pentagon saying through Christensen, “Service members may exercise their rights under the First Amendment regarding the free exercise of religion unless doing so adversely affects good order, discipline, or some other aspect of the military mission.” The article later adds, “Christensen said the Pentagon had no department-wide policy that directly addresses religious proselytizing.”
Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins, who is gathering petition signatures on this issue, responded to the Pentagon’s reversal of its previous statements, saying:
This latest in a series of Pentagon statements is encouraging; we are making progress toward ensuring that the religious liberties of those serving our nation in uniform are in fact protected. However, we know the military is not governed by press releases but by policy. We call on Congress to codify a DoD-wide policy on religious expression that would supersede any policy of the various branches, including the one which was the topic of Mikey Weinstein’s meeting with top Air Force brass. We owe it to those dedicated service members, many of whom are people of deep faith, to call upon Congress to enact a permanent solution to ensure religious expression is protected throughout the Department of Defense now and in the future.
FRC Executive Vice President Jerry Boykin—a retired three-star Army general and commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command—agreed. Boykin added, “Clear rules and orders are absolutely essential when you are commanding troops. There have been conflicting statements on this issue, and our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines deserve a uniform policy protecting their right to share and live their faith.” Gen. Boykin has requested a meeting with Hagel to discuss this issue.
Although there is no single policy throughout the entire Defense Department, one branch of the military has made an unequivocal statement banning proselytizing. The Air Force reaffirmed this policy just last week.
As Fox News’ Todd Starnes reports: “‘When on duty or in an official capacity, Air Force members are free to express their personal religious beliefs as long as it does not make others feel uncomfortable,’ Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley said in a statement to Fox News. ‘Proselytizing (inducing someone to covert to one’s faith) goes over that line.’”
Two critical points stand out. First, to “induce” means only to persuade. It does not involve coercion, force, or undue influence, which everyone can agree should not happen in the military because lower-ranking personnel have religious-liberty rights, too. So under the Air Force’s definition, inviting someone to consider whether your faith might be something they should think about violates Air Force policy. A Christian is not allowed to share the gospel—period.
Second, even if you are not evangelizing with the gospel, the Air Force says that any other religious speech that makes someone “uncomfortable” is likewise forbidden. Everyone knows someone who doesn’t want to hear anything about religion. No religious discussion is safe; if someone later decides they didn’t enjoy the talk, you could be accused of violating policy. That’s hardly consistent with the Constitution's guarantee of free speech, which specifically is designed to protect unpopular speech (because if it were popular it wouldn’t need protection).
Instead, this growing controversy is just the latest in a series of infringements on religious expression. Just last week, a Coast Guard admiral said he was told by lawyers he was crossing the line by giving a Bible to a wounded service member. Rear Adm. William D. Lee responded by saying he would not stop sharing the gospel with people, regardless of whether military policy forbids it.
Retired Col. Ron Crews, who served as an Army chaplain and is now executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL), tells Breitbart News there are numerous examples of restricting religious expression in the military. He gives as examples:
- An Air Force Major with 18 years of service was told he had to remove his Bible from his desk, where it sat alongside family pictures and personal items.
- Another Air Force officer was told he could attend chapel services while in uniform, but could not read Scripture aloud, lead the congregation in prayer, or even serve as an usher.
- Air Force cadets last year had to stop participating in Operation Christmas Child in their dorms, where they competed to fill boxes with toys to give to children for Christmas. Cadets could only donate toys at the chapel.
- Crews received an email just two weeks ago from an Army chaplain who was told that during public ceremonies he could never mention the name “Jesus” in any context.
Whatever word you assign to these actions, they are suppressing the First Amendment rights of service members. And they span all the branches of the Armed Forces.
Former U.S. Ambassador Ken Blackwell, who is a professor at Liberty University, commented:
Whether with the military or any aspect of foreign policy, leadership demands clarity. As we see in the aftermath of Benghazi, conflicting statements regarding those who are serving in harm’s way are unacceptable. In both situations, lawmakers must bring the truth to light, and take action to dispel any confusion on this vital issue of religious liberty.
Under Article I of the Constitution, Congress has power over military recruitment, how to retain members in the military, and defining crimes and rules of conduct in the military. In that vein, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) is scheduled to appear on Breitbart News Sunday on SiriusXM Patriot this weekend to discuss what steps lawmakers are prepared to take.
Breitbart News legal columnist Ken Klukowski is senior fellow for religious liberty at the Family Research Council and on faculty at Liberty University School of Law.