Pentagon's Religious Guidance Spurred 'Tsunami of Confusion'

Soldiers participate in the midnight mass service during the early morning hours at Chapel Next on Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan. (Army photo)

Pentagon guidance on religious accommodation has sparked a "tsunami of confusion" among military commanders, chaplains and personnel, lawmakers were told Wednesday by witnesses on both sides of the debate over religious practice versus proselytizing in the military.

Nearly a year ago, Congress inserted language into the defense budget bill intended to quell criticism by some that Christian chaplains were not allowed to practice their faith. But testimony by retired chaplains and others on Capitol Hill on Wednesday showed that the language has not settled the debate.

Ron Crews, a retired Army chaplain and executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, said guidance inserted is not understood out in the field.

"There is a disconnect between the Pentagon and the field on how religious liberty should be implemented," Crews said. 

In testimony, he recalled a case of an Ohio Air National Guard member whose article was removed from a wing's online newsletter because he spoke of the importance of his faith and mentioned Jesus Christ. But no such action was taken after an airman wrote about atheism for a Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, newsletter, Crews said.

Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group that fights improper and illegal proselytizing in the military, said not all the confusion is innocent.

"There is a tsunami of confusion out there, but there's also a lot of willful confusion," he said. "The excuse of I'm sorry, I don't understand, seems very specious ... I think they [commanders] know very well. There is a very purposeful attempt to witness and proselytize irrespective of the Department of Defense directives, instructions and regulations."

Weinstein has filed or threatened to file numerous lawsuits against the military over the past 10 years in connection with military leaders using their positions to promote their faith. Those cases have included the Air Force Academy coach whose locker-room banner touted "Team Jesus," to an evangelical Christian Embassy video filmed at the Pentagon and featuring senior defense leaders.

One of the major reasons for the guidance established a year ago was to ensure chaplains could exercise their faith freely. Conservative religious and social organizations, especially those with strong evangelical beliefs, have for years claimed that the military stifles Christian chaplains from exercising their religious liberties.

Retired Navy Chaplain (Capt.) Bruce Kahn said in his testimony that in looking after the spiritual needs of service members it has to first be about them, not the chaplain's particular faith.

"Chaplains should never have to be told to pray inclusively or to teach, counsel and advise based on meeting the service members where they are. It should be a given," he said. "That is where military chaplaincy differs from serving a civilian congregation. The religious freedom of the troops is not to be sacrificed to meet the demands of the chaplain. The chaplain adjusts to meet the faith requirements of the troops."

Rep. Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, offered an impassioned defense of chaplains ending prayers with religious expressions specific to their own faith, recalling that a chaplain in Iraq was ordered not to make specific reference to Jesus Christ when doing a service for a soldier who had been killed in action.

"I don't think any government should dictate the conscience of any human being, be he a minister or a chaplain. That's not what God intended," he said. "This is a sad day for America."

When asked by Jones if it was fair for a chaplain to close a prayer in accordance with his own beliefs at a unit service where troops might be from different religions, Crews and two other witnesses representing conservative Christian organizations said yes.

Kahn said it was not fair, while Weinstein responded that "you can either have religious formations or mandatory formations, but you cannot have mandatory religious formations."

Travis Weber, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, testified that the Pentagon has failed to clarify protections for religious expression attempts and must become pro-active in assuring troops that people with religious convictions are welcome in the military.

"To date, DoD's actions have continued to be confusing, at best, and hostile to religious expression at worst," he testified.

Michael Berry, senior counsel and director of military affairs for Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, acknowledged that the Defense Department has taken some steps in that direction, but said more needs to be done.

"There needs to be some formal education done at command level and for the subject-matter experts to deal with these issues," he said. "The military has done a good job on controversial topics like suicide awareness, PTSD ... If the military can do the great job it has in addressing those issues, it can do so with the perception or the actual religious hostility that the service members are experiencing."

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