Religious Freedom in the Military: Where do we stand?

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 Bringing together a panel of some of the foremost experts on these issues, we indentified specific problem areas as a first step toward the goal of helping our nation find concrete solutions through constructive dialogue with decision makers, rather than accusations and confrontations. We could not have been more pleased with the nature of this discussion.


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Rev. Welton Gaddy, President of Interfaith Alliance, kicked off the event with a broad overview of this complex issue, putting it into context and conveying why it matters to Interfaith Alliance. He noted that the defense of our nation and the defense of our Constitution go hand in hand and that we are an organization that “understands and supports the mission of the U.S. military” and is committed to protecting faith and freedom equally. Why does it matter to Interfaith Alliance? Because, as Rev. Gaddy said, at stake in this debate “is nothing less than our constitutional way of life, the view of our nation abroad and the integrity of religion itself.”

 

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Next, we were honored to have Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) serve as our keynote speaker. Rep. Capps was instrumental in calling upon the Air Force to investigate reports of religious intolerance and proselytizing at the Air Force Academy in 2005 and in calling for Congressional hearings and better military guidelines. In her address, she spoke of how offended she was when she “learned that there were instances of proselytizing…at one of our military institutions.” She shared that one of the troubling factors with the instances of religious tolerance was that those who were victims seemed to have “no adequate channels for finding regress…of being able to be acknowledged by someone else” higher up in the command “without the feeling of recrimination.” This was part of why she “felt that we here in [Congress] owed it to those cadets to speak out on their behalf.”

 

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After these two wonderful speakers, we turned to our moderator and our panelists. The moderator for our panel of experts, Dr. Kristen Leslie, is an expert on this issue in her own right. She served as a consultant to the Air Force Academy and co-authored the report that brought the problem of Christian proselytizing at the Academy to light. Dr. Leslie suggested a new way to frame this issue, noting that we can no longer “talk about whether religion has a role in the United States military.” She said that, until now, the question has been “whether there’s too much religion in the military or there’s not enough freedom in the military to have religion.” She suggests instead, because of the increasing diversity of the U.S. population and the military along with it, that the military needs “to find ways to appreciate religious diversity while recognizing that there are limits of accommodation that happen in a military setting” because of its unique demands. Dr. Leslie suggested that we should think about what it means “to take as essentially true that the U.S. military is religiously diverse” and how we can then “engage in the conversation about the tensions that can come around good order…and unit cohesion, which help the mission of the Armed Forces, and what are the religious freedoms that happen in accommodations within that?”

With that framing in mind, we looked to our panelists  to delve deeper into these issues. Our panel for this symposium included:

 

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  • Dr. Martin L. Cook, professor of Professional Military Ethics at the U.S. Naval War College, who serves as an editor of The Journal of Military Ethics. Dr. Cook shared with us his significant understanding of not only the issue of religious freedom in the military, but of the differences and similarities between the various branches of the military, and, from his extensive teaching experience, the areas where better and different education within the military are needed.
 

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  • Dr. Israel Drazin, a retired rabbi and Brigadier General for the U.S. Army, whose extensive service culminated in his post as the Army Assistant Chief of Chaplains. Dr. Drazin provided unique historical insights, as he was responsible for revolutionizing the role of military chaplains so that they are now responsible for the right to free exercise of all military personnel, not just for their coreligionists.
 

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  • Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi, Director of Community Outreach for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), spoke to the challenges faced by people of minority faiths in the military. He noted that chaplains need more extensive interfaith training, that there needs to be more explanation about the practices of normative Islam as opposed to those of extremist Islam, and that military recruiters must be more careful not to overstate the religious accommodations that are available.
 

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  • Major (U.S. Army, ret.) David E. Fitzkee, associate professor of law at the Air Force Academy, co-authored what is considered the scholarly work on this issue, “Religion in the military: navigating the channel between the religion clauses.” He provided thoughtful background on the constitutional and legal issues at play, drawing upon his experience both serving in the Army and as a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
 

This symposium was just the beginning of Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to improve the status of religious freedom and prevent the abuse and misuse of religion in the military. We hope that this event, and others like it, will spark a national dialogue on this topic and bring about lasting, positive change in all branches of the military. It is crucial that we find the right balance between protecting the rights of the men and women who dedicate their lives to protecting our country to practice their faiths, and their right to be free from proselytizing and having religion thrust upon them. As we continue to work and dialogue on this issue, we’d like to hear from you – Do you have a story to tell about an experience with religious freedom in the military or the lack thereof? If so, please let us know!