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Rhetoric heats up in debate over proselytizing in the military

Published: Wednesday, May 1 2013 6:55 p.m. MDT

The regulation is not new. In August, the Air Force issued a policy telling its chaplains that they must balance an airman's right to religious exercise with a prohibition against government establishment of religion. A violation of the policy could result in a court-martial.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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A war over the religious freedom of military chaplains and the troops they serve is being waged in the Pentagon.

The latest salvo came this week when conservative blogger Todd Starnes wrote on Fox News and the Christian Post that the Pentagon confirmed that "religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense."

The regulation is not new. In August, the Air Force issued a policy telling its chaplains that they must balance an airman's right to religious exercise with a prohibition against government establishment of religion. A violation of the policy could result in a court-martial.

What is new is a recent demand to enforce the rule. It came after a private meeting last week between Pentagon officials and Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, former Ambassador Joe Wilson and civil rights attorney Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein.

Conservative Christians are particularly upset that the Department of Defense is taking advice from Weinstein, who heads the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

"God help us now when someone with such visceral hatred of conservative Christians — literally tens of millions of Americans — who says sharing this gospel is 'spiritual rape' is helping develop policies for how to deal with Christians in the military," wrote Ken Klukowski, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.

He draws his conclusions about Weinstein's view of Christianity from a Huffington Post blog in which Weinstein referred to so-called fundamentalist Christians as monsters, bigots, bandits and evil, among other things.

Weinstein told Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn that “there is systematic misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the military.” He called such a culture "a national security threat. What is happening (aside from sexual assault) is spiritual rape. And what the Pentagon needs to understand is that it is sedition and treason. It should be punished.”

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, reacted by saying the military meeting with Weinstein on religious freedom is "like consulting with China on how to improve human rights."

The FRC has launched a petition drive urging Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to "not to proceed with the purge of religion within the ranks called for by anti-Christian activists."

Ron Crews, the executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, told the Christian Post that deciding "a service member cannot speak of his faith is like telling a service member he cannot talk about his spouse or children.

"I do not think the Air Force wants to ban personnel from protected religious speech, and I certainly hope that it is willing to listen to the numerous individuals and groups who protect military religious liberty without demonizing service members."

Two other stories this week signaled that military chaplains are on edge over what they can and cannot say to the troops they advise. Barry Black, the U.S. Senate chaplain and a former military chaplain, said military chaplains could be accused of "hate speech" for teaching what scripture says about homosexuality, according the Christian Post.

"I can see many military chaplains having some problems because, to teach the passages of Paul with exegetical integrity would mean being accused of engaging in hate speech," Black told a Heritage Foundation audience. "So, this is a challenge that I think we're going to have to deal with going forward."

Same-sex marriage may affect more than what a chaplain preaches, says a candidate for the chaplaincy, who wrote under a pseudonym in American Thinker for fear of hurting his chances to become a military chaplain.

"What will happen when a military chaplain turns down gay soldiers who want the chaplain to marry them?" he asked hypothetically. "The military has already seen a major shift in policy towards homosexuals as well as significant rules towards political correctness. If the Army decides that gay marriage is more valuable than the religious beliefs of their chaplains there will likely be a significant change to the Chaplain Corps."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

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