US Military Publishes Major Revision to Religious Liberty Rules

The US military has just updated its regulations with the intent of improving the protection of military religious freedom.

Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 1300.17 was previously known as “Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services,” but is now re-titled simply “Religious Liberty in the Military Services” (PDF). The new DoDI title sets the tone for a policy that presupposes religious liberty, rather than treats it as an outlier that may sometimes be “accommodated.”

That change in tone mimics the tone change in religious liberty policies in the Air Force – which may not be a coincidence. The new DoDI was approved by Undersecretary of Defense Matthew Donovan – a former Air Force fighter pilot who has been both an Undersecretary of the Air Force and even the Acting Secretary of the Air Force in the past few years, during which the tenor (if not always the actions) of Air Force policy leaned toward religious freedom.

It seems President Trump’s selection of Undersecretary Donovan may have set the stage for improving religious liberty in the US military.

As to the DoDI itself, it notably requires the Service Secretaries to institute training programs on religious accommodation, which is essentially the NDAA language Chris Rodda lamented just a few months ago.

The new DoDI incorporates many of the previous mandates and policies, including use of peyote, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and religious pre-accession policies (pre-enlistment and officer commissioning). Generally, the changes are few and subtle. For example, the old regulation specifically called out religious “jewelry” (and said the same rules apply as any other jewelry). The new regulation includes religious jewelry in the category of “religious apparel” and automatically provides permission to wear it, barring the standard restrictions of being able to perform duties and the apparel being “neat and conservative.” While that would explicitly permit most rings and necklaces with crosses, for example, there is a specific prohibition on attachment to the uniform – which would seem to ban religious patches sometimes velcroed onto an Airman’s flight suit.

The definitions are also where Michael “Mikey” Weinstein takes the greatest umbrage. Chris Rodda, Weinstein’s research assistant, noted that “religious practice” (which was previously undefined) is now specifically defined to include “behavior” and “conduct”. The definition reads:

An action, behavior, or course of conduct constituting individual expressions of religious beliefs, whether or not compelled by, or central to, the religion concerned.

This put Rodda into a dither:

Behavior and conduct? This could include just about anything. Is God motivating you to proselytize your fellow service members? Go ahead! That’s “conduct motivated by a sincerely held religious belief.” Want to pray loudly at your desk? No problem! That’s just behavior “constituting individual expressions” of your religious beliefs!

Volume notwithstanding, why does Chris Rodda have a problem with people praying at their desk? Regardless, Rodda and Weinstein are probably worried because, if military leaders actually follow this regulation, it will end many of their public relations campaigns before they start. Now, if the MRFF wants to make hay out of attacking military members like Col Leland Bohannon, LtGen Chris Burne, Chaplain Wes Modder, Chaplain Sonny Hernandez, LtGen Steven Kwast, LtCol Michael Kersten, MajGen Julie Bentz, Maj Christina Hopper, Lt Austin Krohn – yes, it’s a long list, and that’s not even all of them – there will be an immediate, default response that, to borrow Chris Rodda’s words, “religious behavior is the rule rather than the exception.” And that’s precisely how a constitutionally-protected right should be viewed by the government.

In other words, if applied correctly, the new DoDI 1300.17 protects military religious freedom. Odd that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is so upset about that, isn’t it? Said Mikey Weinstein:

MRFF will fight tooth and nail, day and night to stop this new, twisted and perverted version of DoD Instruction 1300.17. Indeed, MRFF will never allow this brand new regulatory provision to illicitly buttress the already repugnant and omnipresent efforts of the fundamentalist Christian religious right from perpetuating its pervasive and pernicious pattern and practice of forcing its weaponized version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ upon otherwise defenseless military subordinates.

Interestingly, Weinstein has exactly zero examples of anyone “forcing [their] weaponized version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ upon otherwise defenseless military subordinates,” despite his claim it is “omnipresent.” In many of the attacks against military Christians noted above, Weinstein was offended only because the military member spoke of the value of God to his life. That, to him, is apparently “weaponized” Christianity.

Though the new regulation does make some strong statements on religious liberty, it remains to be seen if the conduct of the DoD will follow. (As with prior legislative and policy victories for military religious freedom, the tone from some advocates seems to be a bit of “wait and see how its implemented.”) For comparison, Donovan was Undersecretary of the Air Force when Colonel Leland Bohannon was fired in 2018 for not personally signing a spouse appreciation certificate. (The “spouse” was homosexual, so Col Bohannon would have been legitimizing a relationship contrary to his faith). Despite the fact Air Force policies in place at the time should already have protected Col Bohannon, that travesty against religious liberty was not reversed until it made it to the office of Donovan and his boss, then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. In other words, policy alone is insufficient. Leaders within the force must follow it.

As an aside, it was interesting to see the list of references, which was moved to the end of the document in what appears to be an updated regulatory format. Unlike the old 1300.17 it replaced, the new DoDI had one striking reference listed:

The United States Constitution.

Well played.

Also at the Religion Clause, Military Times, and Christian Post.


One comment

  • Well played indeed.

    “Religious practice,” “behavior” and “conduct” are assumed by reasonable people in the text of the First Amendment itself, which specifies that “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]; or abridging the freedom of speech….”

    The operative word, of course, is free “exercise” (i.e., religious practice, behavior, and conduct). No great revelation, but thank God that the DoD had the good sense to restate what the Nation’s founders said so well and succinctly.

    There goes Mikey’s reason for existence. Poor (but radically well-compensated) fella.