Pentagon says military personnel can evangelize but not proselytize

Published: Monday, May 6 2013 10:40 a.m. MDT

U.S. Navy Lt. Dru Nelson, from Everett, WA, the 3/4 Infantry Battalion Chaplain, leads a non-denominational prayer group for U.S. Marines from the 3/4 Infantry Battalion, at a small outpost in the Gereshk Valley, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011. The Pentagon has clarified its position on religious talk among U.S. troops, saying it's OK to talk about one's beliefs, but aggressive proselytizing is not allowed.

Brennan Linsley, Associated Press

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The Pentagon has clarified its position on religious talk among U.S. troops, saying it's OK to talk about one's beliefs, but aggressive proselytizing is not allowed.

The statement issued last Thursday came after a week of heated debate among secularist and Christian groups over where to draw the line on evangelizing in the military.

“The U.S. Department of Defense has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said in a statement. “The department makes reasonable accommodations for all religions and celebrates the religious diversity of our service members.

“Service members can share their faith (evangelize), but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs (proselytization),” Christensen added.

The Alliance Defending Freedom characterized the clarification as backtracking from a previous statement issued Tuesday that the ADF said indicated members of the military could be subject to court martial for “religious proselytization.”

The early statement prompted some conservative Christian bloggers to denounce a conspiracy in the ranks targeting Christians. They were particularly upset that Defense Department officials had met with the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Mikey Weinstein, who has sued the military over religious discrimination.

"But this latest dust up did not occur in a vacuum," reported Religion News Service, which put the controversy into some historical context. "In recent years the U.S. military has become a battleground in the culture wars as the growing pluralism of the armed forces, along with increasing assertiveness of both Christian and secular activists, have led the Pentagon to clarify and develop policies of neutrality."

The ADF remains unsatisfied, however, with the Pentagon's clarification and wants to know the origins of the statement issued earlier in the week.

“We wish to ensure that the Pentagon does not deny members of the armed services the basic freedoms that the Constitution guarantees all Americans,” said ADF legal counsel Joseph La Rue. “For that reason, Alliance Defending Freedom is serious about investigating this gross error.”

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com