Military Prohibits Recognition at Vacation Bible School

Update: Tony Perkins addresses the issue at One News Now. Also at the Christian Post.

Todd Starnes at FoxNews reports on the decision by a local National Guard armory not to be recognized at a local Vacation Bible School — because, they said, it would violate the military policies on religion.  (The Washington Times and others subsequently picked up the story.)

Bible Baptist Church in Carthage…decided to honor the military during their annual Vacation Bible School. The theme was “God’s Rescue Squad.” And each day of the week, the church invited local “rescue squads” to visit with the boys and girls.

The paramedics came on Monday and on Tuesday, the fire department showed up. The boys and girls were taught how to stop, drop and roll. On Wednesday, the Jasper County Sheriff’s Dept. brought their K-9 unit…

On Thursday…the church was supposed to honor the National Guard. They had invited troops from the nearby armory to drop by with one of their Humvees.

The response “dumbfounded” the church:

But the National Guard did not visit Bible Baptist Church on Thursday night…

“We were told it was against military policy for National Guard troops to participate in Vacation Bible School,” Pastor Hogan said. “They said if the National Guard had assets on church property it would look like the National Guard is sponsoring the Baptist religion.”

The unit was wrong, of course. Their presence at a local church would no more “look like” sponsorship of the Baptists than the military presence at “gay pride” parades “looks like” sponsorship of homosexual behavior — a point one of the unit’s own National Guardsmen pointed out, speaking on the condition of anonymity:

“I will never understand why it’s okay for the military to march in a gay pride parade but not be allowed to spend an hour talking to children who look up to them (soldiers),” the Guardsman said.

To be fair, it was likely a local commander’s interpretation of the rules that led to the decision. It is unlikely it was related to a Pentagon-wide policy — just the commander’s interpretation of that policy. (It may even have been the result of a military JAG’s incorrect recommendation to the commander.)  After all, military units routinely participate in similar events and military bases even host their own Vacation Bible Schools. Given that such events happen without incident, it seems evident they’re not interpreted as “sponsoring” any particular aspect of religion.

But that doesn’t mean a commander can’t wrongly interpret policy.

In fact, a commander interpreting policy in such a way as to “discriminate” against a group because it is associated with religion is at the heart of recent controversies over religious policy in the military — and the Air Force in particular. Specifically, religious liberty advocates have noted that Air Force policies were written so broadly that some commanders felt compelled to restrict religious liberty even when it wasn’t required — simply to avoid what it might “look like.”  In other words, some fear potential perception has outweighed actual rights.

And this issue of “interpretation” isn’t of the making of any fringe activist group. Members of Congress pointed out Air Force policies appeared to be biased against the reality of troops’ religious liberty in an effort to avoid issues of perception. More directly, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James is the one who said the policy, while good on paper, isn’t always being applied correctly by commanders on the line. The examples to which she was responding weren’t examples of Airmen being “too religious” — they were examples of the military apparently trying so hard to be “neutral” that it was perceived as being hostile to religion.

In a recent publication from the Army War College, retired officers and professors Don Snider and Alex Shine made an important observation about how institutional policy is interpreted and applied: If military leadership appears to stigmatize religion, even when such treatment is not required by military policy or is even contrary to such policies, younger leaders will see what the leadership does and emulate it. The actions taken by leaders because of “perception” will become eventually become institutionalized — and religious freedom will suffer as a result.

Having a National Guard Humvee at a Baptist church is a far cry from the US government sponsoring, endorsing, or establishing a religion. In an ideal world, the issue would serve as an opportunity for military leadership to correct the Guard’s interpretations of policy, so that the unit would know it could legally support similar requests in future. Ideally, the incident would also inspire leaders to reassure US service members — especially troops of faith — and the American public that the US military treats religion fairly and is not so “hostile” to religious liberty or religion that it stigmatizes it.

Regrettably, given the current state of religious freedom in the US today, it is unlikely such an “ideal” outcome is forthcoming.