Congress Hears Testimony on Military Religious Freedom

The House Armed Services Committee heard testimony from several DoD and civilian sources on Wednesday on the topic of religious accommodation in the US military.  Witnesses included Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy, Ms. Virginia Penrod, US Army Deputy Chief of Chaplains (BGen) Charles Bailey, US Air Force Deputy Chief of Chaplains (BGen) Bobby Page, and US Navy Chief of Chaplains (RAdm) Mark Tidd.  The statements, questions, and answers in the hearing were quite interesting.  The hour-long CSPAN-worthy video can be viewed here, with highlights discussed below.

Military.com summarized the session as “Lawmakers Accuse Military of Anti-Christian Bias,” and the Religion News Service noted “Top brass say they’re not aware of bias against military chaplains.”  It would seem the public perception of the hearing was somewhat different than what the participants thought.

Retired US Army Chief of Chaplains Chaplain (MajGen) Doug Carver was scheduled to speak. Unfortunately, he was unable to make it due to the weather, but his statement was still included in the record.

Chaplain Carver’s statement praised the recent policy updates on accommodation. He expressed concern, however, on perceptions of apparent “growing ignorance, insensitivity, or intolerance” in matters of religious liberty:

I am concerned about the perceived tension, misinformation, and suspicion regarding an individual’s free exercise of religion and conscience while serving as a member of the Armed Services. Media reports over the last year would suggest that there exists within the Armed Forces a growing ignorance, insensitivity, or intolerance regarding matters of religion and its importance within the life of our troops and the organization.

Even more disconcerting is the fact that one’s ignorance on such important matters as religious beliefs can quickly lead to misunderstanding, wrong perceptions, intolerance, and hostility towards those who act and think differently than the majority of the community.

There may be validity to the concern. Even if military regulations support a policy such as religious freedom, if perceptions are otherwise, commanders may not proactively support it or service members may not practice or experience it out of unintentional error or overzealous caution against a perceived public relations threat.  That may very well be the source behind the headlines above; the “top brass” may appear to be unaware of what the “troops” are allegedly saying.

The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty also submitted a statement included in the record, making the key point that the issue hasn’t been who chaplains serve, but how they serve — that is, providing for all without compromising their faith.  CALL also highlighted what has been a secondary issue in the headlines regarding DoD’s new accommodation guidelines — the protection of expression of religious beliefs, even religious beliefs about homosexuality.

Dr. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance submitted a statement that was oddly hostile to religious liberty, demanding that prayer in the military be restricted only to “religious services:”

The military cannot allow public, communal prayer outside of designated times for religious services…

Gaddy’s justification is such prayers disrespect the “freedom of those who choose not to” pray. So Gaddy would institute an official ban on prayer — disrespecting and offending those who do pray — to prevent the offense of those who don’t?

Gaddy similarly takes a schizophrenic view of religious liberty in the US military:

The First Amendment that guarantees the men and women of the armed services their religious freedom also guarantees them the freedom of speech to express these beliefs…

Excellent. But then Gaddy equates religious beliefs and “hate speech.”  Speaking explicitly of the NDAA amendments, reportedly connected to the expression of religious beliefs on homosexuality, Gaddy said

What is not protected is hate speech, discrimination or harassment justified under the guise of religion or “deeply held moral beliefs.”

Gaddy is opposing a strawman. No one has suggested that discrimination or harassment should be defended, nor has anyone claimed that they are required by their faiths to discriminate or harass. As to “hate speech,” which Gaddy declined to specify, the US military already (presumably) protects the rights of service members to say “my religion is true, others are false…” How is any other religious truth claim any different?

Besides the self-contradiction in Gaddy’s own statements, the other interesting thing about the Rev Gaddy’s apparent opposition to religious liberty in the US military is the company he keeps.

The Interfaith Alliance is allied with Michael Weinstein’s MRFF.

Also at Defense.gov and the Baptist Press.