Congress Includes Military Religious Diversity in 2016 NDAA

Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (2015 NDAA) was notable for what it omitted: It was the first NDAA in several years not to include specific language on the religious liberty of US troops or military chaplains. The 2016 NDAA returns religious language to the NDAA in a unique way [emphasis added]:


(a) FINDINGS.—Congress finds the following:

(1) The United States military includes individuals with a variety of national, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds that have roots all over the world.

(2) In addition to diverse backgrounds, members of the Armed Forces come from numerous religious traditions, including Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, non-denominational, nonpracticing, and many more.

(3) Members of the Armed Forces from diverse backgrounds and religious traditions have lost their lives or been injured defending the national security of the United States.

(4) Diversity contributes to the strength of the Armed Forces, and service members from different backgrounds and religious traditions share the same goal of defending the United States.

(5) The unity of the Armed Forces reflects the strength in diversity that makes the United States a great Nation.

(b) SENSE OF CONGRESS.—It is the sense of Congress that the United States should—

(1) continue to recognize and promote diversity in the Armed Forces; and

(2) honor those from all diverse backgrounds and religious traditions who have made sacrifices in serving the United States through the Armed Forces.

In the House, the language was proposed by Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-NY), and it passed in the Senate by a margin of 71-25, making it very likely it will be part of the final legislation.

The language isn’t totally unique, as prior NDAAs have include the “sense of Congress” on diversity.  In fact, the 2006 NDAA used almost identical language — but this appears to be the first time religion was specifically enumerated. In addition, it is noteworthy that Congress said its “sense” was that [emphasis added]

members of the Armed Forces come from numerous religious traditions, including Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh

Sikhs are, by and large, unable to serve in the US military because of strict rules regarding dress and appearance.  However, at least one ROTC student has won a case against the military that some think might set a precedent.  Congressman Crowley, who authored the reference to Sikhs, issued a release praising that ruling and saying he has

been a leader in urging the U.S. military to end its presumptive ban on Sikhs serving…

It is also noteworthy that Congress specifically called on the US military to [emphasis added]

honor those from all diverse backgrounds and religious traditions

This is particularly interesting given that the US military is spending a month celebrating pride in sexuality during June, yet spends less than a day, if that, “honoring those from all…religious traditions.”

The “sense of Congress” is not a law. However, similar “sense” statements in the past have eventually been reflected in legislation. Even if this does not, it communicates to the military the paradigm with which Congress — the branch of the government constitutionally empowered to “raise an army” — will oversee it in the coming year.

As a result, it will be very interesting to see what the US Congress may say in the coming year about the service of Sikhs and the prominence of religious tolerance and recognition within the US military.

Via Howard Friedman at the Religion Clause.