Activists mount new campaign for servicemembers’ religious freedom

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Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, speaks at Tuesday's news conference on Capitol Hill. Behind him, left to right, are former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, now with the FRC; retired Army chaplain Ron Crews (partly hidden) of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty; Rep. John Fleming, R-La.; and Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
From Stripes.com
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, speaks at Tuesday's news conference on Capitol Hill. Behind him, left to right, are former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, now with the FRC; retired Army chaplain Ron Crews (partly hidden) of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty; Rep. John Fleming, R-La.; and Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

Activists mount new campaign for servicemembers’ religious freedom

by: Leo Shane III | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: July 10, 2013

WASHINGTON — Christian activists are pledging to mount a new campaign to protect religious freedom in the military, saying they’re seeing growing evidence of an anti-faith bent among military and administration leaders.

“We get calls all the time telling us how bad it is to be a religious person in the military,” said retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, now executive vice president of the conservative Family Research Council. “Political correctness has destroyed the ability to live your faith in the military.”

The move comes amid the annual debate on the defense budget bill, which again this year includes Republican amendments guaranteeing protection for troops who speak openly about their religion.

Past efforts to pass the language have failed in the Senate, and White House and Pentagon officials have called the move unnecessary and potentially disruptive.

But the activists and a handful of Republican House members said such language would protect Christian troops from misguided commanders who are slowly eliminating all mention of religion in public military forums.

Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, cited numerous anecdotes (all anonymous, out of fear of retribution from the chain of command) of soldiers forced to hide their Bibles, chaplains forced to omit Jesus’ name from public prayers, and commanders facing dismissal for refusing to grant same-sex benefits to gay troops.

His group plans to begin distributing religious liberty wallet cards, informing troops they have the right to “freely exercise and appropriately express their faith” and listing resources who can assist in that fight.

“Those who wear the uniform should not themselves have to give up their religious liberties,” he said.

In a statement, Defense Department spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said there have not been any new complaints or problems with the department’s policies on religious expression, and there is no effort within the department to make religious proselytizing a crime.

“In general, servicemembers may share their faith with other servicemembers, but may not forcibly attempt to convert others of any faith or no faith to their own beliefs,” he said. “Servicemembers can share their faith, but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs.

“Concerns about these issues are handled on a case-by-case basis by the leaders of the unit involved.”

Conservative lawmakers have complained about limits on religious expression in the military for years, but the issue was amplified after the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law in 2011. Several chaplains groups complained that rules prohibiting them from speaking out against homosexuality unfairly limited their religious liberties.

Last month, the Supreme Court overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act, paving the way for those now openly gay troops to receive benefits for their same-sex spouses. Activists pointed to that ruling, saying it further complicates the troops’ expression of religious beliefs.

Christensen noted that the Defense Department does not endorse any one faith and works to provide “free access of religion” to all troops.

“We work to ensure that all servicemembers are free to exercise their Constitutional right to practice their religion, in a manner that is respectful of other individuals’ rights to follow their own belief systems and in ways that are conducive to good order and discipline,” he said.

shane.leo@stripes.com
Twitter: @LeoShane