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RECEDING FREEDOM: Colonel David Sutherland and the brigade chaplain pray with soldiers as they grieve fallen comrades in Iraq.
Eros Hoagland/Redux
RECEDING FREEDOM: Colonel David Sutherland and the brigade chaplain pray with soldiers as they grieve fallen comrades in Iraq.

Holding the line

Military | Chaplains are pursuing their mission in a military suddenly hostile to Christianity and ready to suppress religious freedom

Issue: "No pray zone?," July 13, 2013

GREENVILLE, S.C.—This year: An Idaho Air Force base removes a painting called “Blessed Are the Peacemakers” because it references a Bible verse. The Air Force yanks off You-Tube a video tribute to first sergeants because its statement, “God created a first sergeant,” is “highly suggestive of the Book of Genesis in the Bible and has Christian overtones.”

Also this year: An Army Reserve training brief on hate groups declares that evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics are extremists as dangerous as al-Qaeda. A commander tells a chaplain to “stay in your lane” when he offers spiritual advice about the military’s exploding sexual assault problem. 

Last year: A superior tells an Air Force major to remove from his desk the Bible he had kept there for 23 years. An Army lieutenant colonel instructs his subordinates to recognize the “religious right in America” as a domestic hate group like the KKK and Neo-Nazis. An Army master sergeant with 25 years of service faces punishment for serving Chick-fil-A sandwiches at his promotion party. 

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Two years ago: Christian prayers banned at veteran funeral services in Houston’s National Cemetery. Bibles temporarily banned at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. A Christian cross banned from a military chapel in Afghanistan. A chaplain called into his supervisor’s office and chewed out for closing a prayer with the words “In Jesus’ name.”

Coincidence that all these incidents occurred recently? About 80 military chaplains who gathered in South Carolina for a three-day conference last month didn’t think so. George Washington established the military chaplaincy, but Doug Lee, a retired Army chaplain who achieved the rank of brigadier general, told attendees, “You are in the military in a new era.”

The marginalization of Christianity in a military becoming more and more hostile to religion has left the chaplains feeling muzzled—and they now face same-sex couples coming to them for marriage counseling. The chaplains still get to wear crosses on their collars, so they worry even more about those Christians in regular uniforms losing the First Amendment freedom of religious expression that they volunteered to defend.

“We are at war,” said Chaplain Thomas MacGregor, a U.S. Army colonel. In June 2009, MacGregor bucked the trend by invoking Jesus’ name and proclaiming His resurrection during a prayer at the official Normandy ceremony honoring the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Several chaplains turned down the assignment, MacGregor said: “Be as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove … that is the rule of the thumb I give to my junior chaplains.”

This May, frustrated with the weight of evidence, Coast Guard Rear Admiral William Lee broke rank, throwing out his prepared text at Washington’s National Day of Prayer event (see video below).

“They expect us to check our religion in at the door—don’t bring that here,” Lee said. “Leaders like myself are feeling the constraints of rules and regulations and guidance issued by lawyers that put us in a tighter and tighter box regarding our constitutional right to express our religious faith. … Pray that we will be able to weather the storm.” Lee received five standing ovations.

Capitol Hill lawmakers are taking notice. In June, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., successfully inserted into a Defense spending bill an amendment stating military personnel will have freedom of conscience and will not be disciplined for their religious beliefs. At the chaplains’ conference Doug Lee commented on that: “Isn’t it tragic that we have to have a special paragraph that would insist on your First Amendment rights which are clearly spelled out already? … That’s where we are.”

Last December Congress passed a similar amendment to safeguard the religious beliefs of service members. But President Barack Obama, when he signed the larger bill into law, said the protections were “unnecessary” and “ill-advised.” Six months later the Obama administration has refused to issue regulations to enforce the protections. At a congressional hearing this spring, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel seemed to be unaware that the protections were in the law.

The Obama administration issued a statement on June 11 saying it “strongly objects” to a new religious liberty amendment: It would have a “significant adverse effect on good order, discipline, morale and mission accomplishment.” The Administration did not object to an amendment offered last month by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., that would create atheist chaplains. That amendment lost, but 150 House Democrats voted for it.

How bad is the military environment? Reports of the influence of Mikey Weinstein, who met with officials at the Pentagon and has called religious proselytizing “a national security threat … sedition and treason … spiritual rape,” are probably exaggerated. But Major John Sackett, an Air Force chaplain, told me at the conference that Air Force chaplains like himself have “fear of retribution. … I often ask, ‘Will what I need to say now actually get me in trouble?’”

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