Military Religious Freedom: The Torah in Iraq
The Air Force news published articles and pictures (see below the fold) of a Torah dedication ceremony in Balad, Iraq, on March 23rd, as well as the accompanying adult Bar Mitzvah of an enlisted Airmen.
Contrary to some assertions, such public displays of faith do not demonstrate an institutional favoritism of a religion (in this case, Judaism) by the military or by the government. Such expressions–even in a region of the world that has elements hostile to both Judaism and America–are not only permitted but also encouraged, just as the free exercise of other faiths is also supported.
Such displays are also wholly permissible in uniform, as these Airmen were. The Airmen wore yarmulkes in place of their military covers, which is explicitly permitted by DoDD 1300.17 when military headgear is not required (other similar guidance can be found here). Many of the Airmen involved in the uniformed religious celebration were also armed, but such a display did not militarize the spiritual event.
Also, the presence of mixed ranks is evidence of neither coercion nor improper command influence. The Air Force picture includes men and women, both senior officers and junior enlisted. The resulting relationships among the varied ranks who share and celebrate a common faith are neither coercive nor illegal.
The ability of these Airmen to publicly celebrate their faith is evidence of the lengths to which the military goes to accomodate religious faith, even while its troops are in a combat zone in a region sometimes hostile to America and its varied faiths. It also demonstrates the freedom of religion American troops continue to enjoy even while in the military–even when they are uniformed and armed officers and enlisted.
However, Michael Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has previously described public expressions of faith by military personnel in theatre, like this Torah dedication, as
a noxious national security threat that would embolden a fundamentalist Islamic opponent and maim and kill our own soldiers
and has equated photos of religious soldiers with their weapons with those of Islamic extremist suicide bombers. He has called American military members of faith a “Taliban” that must be stopped, and has claimed that public displays of faith in the military embolden our adversaries and serve as “recruiting tools” for al Qaeda.
Notably, however, Weinstein has restricted his criticism to only those of the Christian faith.
Photo credit: Department of Defense