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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Military Silencing Religious Views? Maybe Not.

[Disclaimer: This is not an official statement by the Army, the Department of Defense, or any other organization. Opinions are my own. No legal advice is being given, and nothing within this post should be construed as such.] 

I have a message for members of the military concerned about their ability to express their faith: Don't worry. It hasn't yet come to that.  

My social media is exploding with the story about a "new policy" stopping military personnel from sharing their faith, including chaplains. I immediately met this story with caution, and I think that might be the best approach.

Based on the stories I've seen so far, I think it would be best not to rush to judgment.
From what I can glean from these stories, they all seem to point to a directive by the Air Force from 2012. I read the directive, and there is NOTHING to suggest that Chaplains or other Airmen cannot share there faith. 

It does, however, discuss a long-held standard for all military commanders. Commanders and those in leadership may not coerce others to a certain religious point of view. The operative part of the directive (which carries the force of law) states that leaders in the Air Force "must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion." All military branches teach their leaders that they may not promote one religion over another to their subordinates. Nothing in this directive would stop an Army Lieutenant from discussing his faith with his superior, another lieutenant, or DOD civilians outside of his chain-of-command. In addition, nothing in this directive would stop a Chaplain from doing what Chaplains do, and what they have always done. Commanders have always walked a fine line when discussing their personal religious or political views, and this doesn't stop them from doing that, even with their subordinates.

The stories report that Nate Christensen, a Navy O-4 spokesman at the Pentagon said, "Religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense. Court martials [sic] and non-judicial punishments are decided on a case-by-case basis and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome in specific cases." Taken at face value, this statement is concerning. However, there are several things to note about this statement:

1. Even if the statement was said by a Pentagon official, the statement does not carry the force of law. It is not a lawful regulation or general order under Article 92 of the UCMJ, and thus, could not be used as non-judicial punishment or in a court-martial.

2. The stories all claim this was a written statement, but only one source received this statement and reported on it (all of the other stories are quoting him, the Fox News contributor).

3.  I have to question the way the statement was delivered, and the accuracy of how it was reported. My guess is that it was an email because of a glaring error. The plural of court-martial is "courts-martial." It seems that in an official Pentagon press release, several sets of eyes would have reviewed the statement and somebody would have caught on to that.

4. Perhaps the statement was just inartfully worded. I cannot imagine that the Pentagon has decided to announce an official position to a single source, that reverses course from the entire history of military law precedent and policy.

I have seen no evidence that any branch of the military has given any directive, order (lawful or otherwise), instruction, or regulation that would stop its members from sharing their faith. 

I'm not saying there shouldn't be concern over statements like those allegedly made by the pentagon official. I'm also not saying that we shouldn't be concerned when Pentagon officials look to sources like Mikey Weinstein for guidance on anything, let alone religious tolerance. But these stories alone should not lead military members to stop discussing their faith as they always have, being cognizant of their roles as leaders.

Admittedly, I'm an outsider now, having been discharged from Active Duty nine months ago. So if I'm missing some policy that the news stories haven't shared, I hope someone will pass on the information that I don't have in front of me. Absent that, I think it's premature for civilians to panic about the state of military's freedom of expression, for our military friends to stop sharing their faith, or for Christians in the military to find civilian jobs. 

Troops, keep fighting the good fight on all fronts, military and otherwise. 

Jody Hurst spent four years as an Army Judge Advocate, and now spends his time trying to make the world a better place through writing, blogging, trying to be a decent husband to his beautiful wife and father to his three wonderful kids, and occasionally working as  a local government attorney.  

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