Military Maneuvers The Growing Battle over Religious Freedom in the Armed Forces

Issues related to religious freedom in the military could constitute the next big wave of church-state conflicts.

Change is in the air—and some people don’t like that. The Navy recently granted approval to the first atheist lay leader, Chief Petty Officer Martin Healey, who serves on the amphibious assault vessel USS Makin Island.

This is an important step forward, but some say it doesn’t go far enough. The Humanist Society, an adjunct of the American Humanist Association, continues to press for a full-blown humanist chaplain. The group has filed a lawsuit against the Navy on behalf of Jason Heap, a humanist celebrant who has been denied status as a chaplain by the Department of Defense.

“Dr. Heap’s qualifications and experience far exceed the standards articulated by the Navy for accepting applicants,” asserts Heap’s counsel in the lawsuit (Heap v. Hagel). “The Navy denied his application because of his humanist beliefs.”

Religious and/or philosophical diversity in the military is apparently on the upswing. The lawsuit says that 3.6 percent of members of the military identify as humanist. Other surveys have shown higher numbers of Wiccans and pagans in the military than in the civilian population.

As the military has struggled to accommodate this new diversity, the religious right’s reaction to all of this has been about what you would expect. According to groups like the Family Research Council (FRC) and the American Family Association, “persecution” against conservative Christians is rampant in today’s military.

These organizations define persecution in a strange way. To them, any attempt by military officials to curb unwanted proselytism or the imposition of prayer and worship on the unwilling falls under the definition of “persecution.”

Last year the FRC went so far as to produce a report detailing instances of alleged violations of religious freedom in the military. The report, which covered the years 2004-2014, listed just over sixty examples. Even if the instances were true, that would amount to about six violations per year—a drop in the bucket when one considers that there are more than 1.3 million men and women on active duty.

But as it turns out, the examples listed in the report aren’t even real violations of religious freedom. Peter Zupan, who recently interned at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, worked with AU’s legislative department to examine every alleged violation listed in the FRC report. Zupan found that the “violations” fall into three broad categories:

1) Prominent individuals saying critical things about military policy. The FRC report lists several examples of criticism of the military leveled by Mikey Weinstein (of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation) and others. Weinstein has indeed been a vocal critic of many of the military’s policies and actions when it comes to religious liberty. Military officials sometimes act on his complaints and sometimes don’t, but his decision to speak out hardly violates anyone’s religious freedom.

2) Attempts to enforce the separation of church and state. The FRC report contains several examples of incidents where military officials acted to stop unwanted proselytism or required chaplains to use generic language when speaking to large audiences (instead of assuming that everyone attending was Christian and wanted to recite a sectarian prayer). This isn’t persecution; it’s an effort to ensure that the rights of all are respected.

3) Examples of unclear policies that were quickly fixed. On a few occasions, military officials have propagated unclear policies that resulted in confusion. In every case, these problematic policies were quickly revised. In September 2011, for example, officials at the Walter Reed Medical Center expressed concerns about members of aggressive fundamentalist Christian groups who were visiting bed-ridden soldiers recovering from injuries. Some patients at Walter Reed didn’t appreciate these visits. There were allegations of heavy-handed proselytism and even complaints that some of the visitors were disparaging the soldiers’ service. As the institution put it, visitors were “sometimes using threatening and condemning language,” and some of these unwanted visits were “persistent and repeated.” In response to complaints from family members, officials at Walter Reed issued a directive barring visitors from distributing religious material. They quickly realized the policy was too broad because it could have been applied to visitors who were sharing religious material with willing patients. The policy was never enforced and was immediately corrected. This incident quickly entered the religious right’s outrage machine and became an example of so-called persecution, which still gets cited today even though the matter was corrected four years ago.

Although the FRC report didn’t contain any actual violations of religious liberty in the military, it still had an impact: far-right members of Congress have used it to whip up hysteria. In November, a congressional subcommittee went so far as to hold a hearing on the matter. Weinstein was among the witnesses, and he was subjected to an intense grilling. Like many congressional hearings these days, the event had the feel of a show trial.

Unfortunately, stunts like this may be producing results. The Air Force has for a long time adhered to a set of policy directives that curb religious pressure along the chain of command. The policies were designed to prevent senior officers from imposing their personal religious beliefs on subordinates. Thanks to pressure from the religious right, these directives were recently rewritten and watered down.

The new Congress, now peppered with even more social conservatives, is expected to push military “religious freedom” issues even more. The attack on separation of church and state could take many forms. Evangelical chaplains, for example, are demanding the right to impose their faith on the government’s dime, and in some parts of the country war memorials have been erected that incorporate Christian iconography. Such memorials don’t represent the millions of non-Christian men and women who fought for this country, yet Congress seems determined to save them.

Ironically, the U.S. military (despite its reputation for hidebound conservatism) has historically been ahead of the curve in some areas. It accepted racial integration before the rest of society, and the inclusion of openly gay service members into the ranks has been accomplished with little fuss (even though religious right groups insisted it would destroy our fighting forces). Still, the ethos of the “Christian warrior” is deeply entrenched and much beloved by religious right groups, featuring prominently in their “God and country” mythology.

But the fact remains that there are atheists in foxholes, and safeguarding their rights—along with the rights of everyone else who doesn’t want Christian fundamentalism imposed on them by the chain of command—is a serious challenge for our armed forces. We can win this one, but not without a fight.