Rivals in Military Religious Freedom Dispute Say Rule Is Unclear

Bible in hand, a chaplain for the Mississippi Army National Guard, conducts chapel service in the field. Andy Thaggard/U.S. Army

WASHINGTON -- Faith in Jesus might not be your solution, an Army Ranger chaplain told members of the 5th Ranger Training Battalion in a mandatory suicide prevention briefing last month, but that's what helped him through his struggle with depression.

The presentation prompted a sharply worded letter from the chaplain's commander and rekindled a long-running dispute over whether the expression -- and the promotion -- of religious faith must remain private in the U.S. military or whether it is allowable on duty.

Nearly a year after the Department of Defense issued a heavily revised religious expression policy that advocates said would bring a new level of religious freedom, the dispute at Fort Benning, Ga., is evidence that the new wording hasn't done away with old disputes. The fight over what constitutes free exercise and what qualifies as government-imposed religion remains as heated as ever.

The chaplain, Capt. Joe Lawhorn, also presented nonreligious ways to combat the military suicide epidemic at the session, held off base near Camp Merrill, Ga., on Nov. 20. When the men filed out, they carried handouts prepared by the former enlisted soldier, who attended seminary at Liberty University, a conservative Christian institution founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell.

One side of the handout featured secular suicide-prevention tips. The other side presented Christianity as the answer.

"Enduring and overcoming distress begins by maintaining your integrity of connectedness with God," the handout said. "Invite Jesus into whatever you're feeling. Remember, he will never let you down (Romans 8:1.)"

A member of the battalion, a staff sergeant who asked to remain anonymous to avoid potential retaliation, said he was shocked by what he'd heard and read. The atheist infantryman, who said it's possible to work through trauma without religion, said the briefing was an affront to soldiers of other faiths or no faith.

"It just seemed entirely inappropriate for something that's not supposed to be a religious gathering," he said. "The part about opening oneself to Jesus -- it sounds like they're saying if someone doesn't believe, they can't be healed."

After the incident was publicized by the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers advocacy group, Fort Benning's command warned the chaplain to cool the religious content in mandatory briefings.

In response, Lawhorn's attorney, Michael Berry -- of the Liberty Institute, a competing advocacy group -- cited the wording in the new policy in a letter demanding that the Army explicitly approve religious content in the chaplain's briefings.

"The Army has not and cannot point to any law or regulation Chaplain Lawhorn violated," Berry, senior counsel and director of military affairs for the organization, told Stars and Stripes. "On the contrary, federal law and military regulations permit and protect religious expression by servicemembers."

Guidance needed

Both sides agree on one point: There's a "tsunami of confusion" over what the policy says.

That's the phrase used last month in Congressional testimony by Military Religious Freedom Foundation president Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer who fights to prevent commanders from injecting mandatory religion into military life and work.

The phrase was endorsed in the same hearing by a frequent opponent, Ron Crews, a retired Army chaplain who heads the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty. Crews' group advocates for chaplains, frequently evangelical Christians, who want to talk freely about their faith.

Each side charges the other with misrepresenting the new policy, but they agree that the DoD needs to do much more to establish what it all means.

"There's an incredible lack of education," Weinstein said, advocating strict discipline and courts-martial as a teaching tool as a response for those who bring religion into the military workplace.

Berry, who testified in the same hearing last month as Weinstein and Crews, said the DoD needs to clearly explain how the revised policy authorizes actions like Lawhorn's anti-suicide briefing.

Other controversial policy changes have been accompanied by guidance on implementation, Berry said.

"When 'don't ask, don't tell' in the military was repealed, they didn't just tell folks, 'OK, it's been repealed, carry on with your lives,' " Berry said. "Instead, there was a program of training to ensure it was adequately understood. I think that is a pretty wise approach to take, and I think something similar should be implemented here."

The current DoD policy on religion was released in January in response to a requirement from Congress in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act. According to the federal law, "the Armed Forces shall accommodate individual expressions of belief" as much as possible.

When the policy was released, the main focus of attention was on free exercise of religion for minorities, who became able to more easily obtain exceptions to policy to wear beards or articles of clothing that violate military regulations.

But the policy doesn't just cover minorities who follow traditional practices, including Sikhs, Jews and Muslims. It extends the prospect of free religious expression to all, including the military's Christian majority.

According to the key section, "unless it could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline, the Military Departments will accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs."

For supporters of strict separation of church and state, the "adverse impact" exception of the law is key; any dissension in the ranks as a result of religious grudges or discord can only hurt the readiness of the unit.

"The bottom line is, we have to make sure our military is tough enough to be ready to kill the enemies of our country," Weinstein said. Because of that imperative, the government has a compelling interest in limiting the kind of untrammeled religious expression civilians enjoy in order to maintain strong and unified military units, he said.

But hypothetical damage to unit morale, discipline or readiness doesn't constitute "compelling interest" under the law for the government to limit religious speech, Berry said.

"When we're actually court-martialing someone for prejudicing good order and discipline, it requires direct evidence -- someone to actually get on the stand and demonstrate an effect," said Berry, who served as an attorney in the Marine Corps. "Otherwise, it's all speculation and someone playing worst-case scenario."

Opposite views

Despite the new policy, which appears to give greater protection to religious freedom, Berry said there is a heightened level of hostility to religious rights in today's military.

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said the opposite -- that there is a heightened sense among some religious people that federal law and the new DoD policy give them free rein to proselytize.

"If evangelicals in Congress want military chaplains to enforce Christianity in their official duties, then they are getting their wish," he said in a statement. "But if we all seek religious liberty and the mental health of our military men and women, then here should be swift action against that chaplain, his endorsing agency, and the battalion commander who participated in this wanton abuse of their military authority."

After Torpy's airing of the anonymous soldier's complaint, Fort Benning's command took action. Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade commander Col. David G. Fivecoat issued a "letter of concern" to Lawhorn in late November that accused him of violating Army policies on religious expression and equal opportunity.

When Berry pushed back on Lawhorn's behalf, Fivecoat revised the letter to remove the policy citations, but left in place an order to "create an environment of tolerance and understanding."

Then, earlier this month, Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commander of Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, pointed out that the letter issued to Lawhorn is not an official punishment but an attempt at guidance that is re-moved from a soldier's file upon reassignment.

In declining to remove the letter, Miller stopped just short of explicitly criticizing Lawhorn but pointed out what is expected of a chaplain when carrying out duties like suicide-prevention training.

"Their role is not to provide religious instruction during non-religious mandatory training classes," he wrote in a statement released to the media. "Chaplains may appropriately share their personal experiences, but any religious information given by a Chaplain to a military formation should be limited to an orientation of what religious services and facilities are available and how to contact Chaplains of specific faiths."

Berry said Lawhorn's retelling of his experience with depression, and how faith pulled him through, was appropriate to the situation. It's the Army that enshrines "spiritual fitness" as one of the elements of overall soldier fitness, he said, and sends chaplains to conduct mandatory training.

"If you have a problem with what Chaplain Lawhorn has done," Berry said, "I would submit you have a problem with the Army, not with Chaplain Lawhorn."

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