Encourage GIs’ spiritual fitness, not censorship
By MIKE BERRY | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: January 30, 2018
While the Department of Defense defends our nation against threats to national security, two groups are hoping Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will take his attention off the enemy and turn it against the spiritual needs of our servicemembers.
In a joint letter to Mattis, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Atheists demand that the DOD put an end to several time-honored military traditions. Among their complaints, these groups demand a crackdown on the longstanding practice of allowing invocations at military graduation ceremonies, or requiring recruits who choose not to participate in religious programs to perform other military duties.
These demands are not only legally wrong — they’re dangerous.
To read their claims, one would assume that, for those who identify as atheist or nonreligious, religious coercion is on the rise. But upon closer examination, it turns out that neither organization cites a single incident to support their claims of religious coercion. Not one.
Instead, there are vague references to events that support their thesis, but as you drill down to the details, there’s no actual proof. No lawsuits, no court decisions; only suggestions that conveniently align with their organizational mission.
But perhaps worse than mere unsupported claims, the letter goes on to make a number of incorrect legal assertions.
First, the letter claims that by permitting military chaplains to offer invocations at military graduation ceremonies, the government violates the much-maligned “Lemon test.” But, the practice of invocations at government meetings or events is hardly a novel concept. In fact, it predates the Constitution itself. And, the Supreme Court has repeatedly and recently upheld invocations by government employees and private citizens as consistent with the history and tradition of our country and the Constitution.
In fact, currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court is Lund v. Rowan County, in which the court may decide whether an elected official may deliver an invocation. Meanwhile, invocation practices that are part of this nation’s history and tradition continue to be constitutional.
Knowing this, the authors of the letter claim that the very existence of military chaplains “[is] legally justifiable only as a means of accommodating the free exercise rights of military members.” In other words, these organizations believe military chaplains should not exist, but that there is a legal justification for them so we have to reluctantly give them a pass.
Surely they must know that a federal appeals court famously declared that the military chaplaincy is not something we must merely tolerate as legally justifiable, but that the Constitution actually obligates Congress to provide for the free exercise of religion in the military by means of the chaplaincy.
Military chaplains are the fulfillment of our nation’s constitutional obligation to our servicemembers.
Were the DOD to give in to the groups’ demands, the harm our military would suffer would be catastrophic. Religious freedom in the military is not a luxury; it is every bit a necessity as bullets, beans and bandages. Religious freedom is a force multiplier that enables all troops — regardless of their faith, or no faith — to prepare themselves for what may be required of them in military service.
The taking of a life — or indeed, the ultimate sacrifice of one’s own life — while in service to this nation requires physical, mental and spiritual fitness. Or, as a post-World War II report to President Harry S. Truman on the importance of religion in the military stated, “[If] we expect our Armed Forces to be physically prepared, we must also expect them to be ideologically prepared.” Military chaplains are essential to that preparation.
Indeed, few in this administration understand this more than the man to whom this misguided letter is addressed, Mattis. Here’s hoping he refuses to take the bait, disregards these false and dangerous demands and keeps his attention on America’s enemies. Our servicemembers make many sacrifices in defense of our nation. Religious liberty should never be one of them.
Mike Berry is deputy general counsel and director of Military Affairs at FirstLiberty.org, and a former active-duty U.S. Marine officer.