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New legislation seeks to affirm religious freedom in military

Published: Sunday, Feb. 9 2014 4:00 a.m. MST

Song Burdick lights candles before daily Mass is celebrated at Christ, Prince of Peace Blessed Sacrament Chapel at Hill Air Force Base, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Michael Handman had been at basic training in Georgia for less than a month when he sent a letter home to his parents with a frightening message. Handman, who was 20 at the time, said he was being persecuted because he is Jewish.

“I have just never been so discriminated against, humiliated about my religion,” he wrote his parents in the 2008 letter, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I just feel like I’m always looking over my shoulder. Maybe your dad was right … the Army is not the place for a Jew.”

Reports of religious intolerance, ranging from harassment like Handman experienced, to the removal of a menorah and nativity scenes from a California Air Force Base in December 2011, are part of what motivated Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to write legislation to protect the religious freedom of those serving in the military.

The National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law Dec. 26, 2013, by President Obama, calls on the U.S. military to accommodate “individual expressions of belief,” a step further than the previous version of the act, which was interpreted by some to stop short of allowing soldiers to speak freely about his or her faith without recrimination.

The new act aims to require the Department of Defense to ensure soldiers more religious freedom in word and deed, but as conflicts over faith in the military rise, and a long-abiding history of conflict when subordinates complain about their supervisors for unjust treatment persists, experts say only time will tell if the legislation will make an impact.

For Handman, the new NDAA law comes too late. Five years ago, the private was called derogatory names because of his faith, ordered to remove his yarmulke and rebuked for reading Jewish canon. Then, a few days after his letter home, on Sept. 24, 2008, Handman was lured into a laundry room and beaten to the point of unconsciousness, an Associated Press story says.

Handman was later transferred to another unit for his own protection, and the soldier who attacked him was discharged, but some say the conditions of the incident — a ritualistic military culture that favors Evangelical Christianity — never changed, and similar discrimination continues today.

Religious freedom

In 2012, another Jewish soldier was harassed on the job.

Since he joined the U.S. Army as an active duty soldier in 1989, he’s experienced some level of discrimination, he says, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, but in the last 18 months, the treatment has become intolerable.

“I’ve served in combat. I’m an outstanding officer, and all of a sudden I can’t do my job,” the solder said of negative treatment he received after he complained that his supervisor had ordered him to read the Bible in 24 hours and accept Jesus after the supervisor found out he was Jewish. “I was ready to quit the Army and leave and never come back. I couldn’t wear my yarmulke, I wasn’t allowed to have Kosher (meals). … I was told, ‘We don’t want you around.’ ”

As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Lee says he became informed about conflicts over religious freedom in the military, and he became determined to do something about it.

“We had been getting reports that a lot of religious individuals within the military were being threatened or having action taken against them as a result of their very basic expression of religious belief,” Lee said recently. “In some instances, people were being affirmatively cautioned against expressing any kind of religious belief by commanding officers.”

In 2013, the Armed Services Committee attempted to address the issue by adding language to the NDAA that called for the military to “accommodate the beliefs” of its soldiers. But the language stopped short of including actions and speech associated with belief, Lee said, so resulting changes were stunted.

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