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New legislation seeks to affirm religious freedom in military

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

For example, the Family Research Council, a conservative nonprofit Christian lobbyist organization, points to a 2012 memo from Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz that commands leaders to “avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs” as evidence of curtailing religious speech among military commanders.

“Rather than erring on the side of restraining religious speech, we need to encourage our military to live in accordance to their faith,” said Leanna Baumer, senior legislative assistant for government affairs with the Family Research Council.

As part of legislation, the Department of Defense has 90 days from the day the law was passed to issue regulations on how the law should be applied. The Department of Defense issued its first directive on Jan. 22, which declares that sincerely held beliefs (religious or nonreligious) cannot be used as the basis of adverse personnel action or discrimination. The regulations also make accommodations for grooming and appearance. For example, soldiers might get permission to grow a beard or wear a yarmulke because of a religious belief.

The regulations are a step in the right direction, Baumer said, but only time will tell if the regulations go further, or if the new law is enforced.

“This amendment sent a message, loudly and clearly, that religious freedom means much more than accommodation of one’s religious belief,” Lee said. “It requires more of the government than the government allows people to think religious thoughts. They must also be able to engage in religious activity and speech.”

Changing religious intolerance

The anonymous Jewish soldier wrestling with discrimination doesn’t take much comfort in the Department of Defense’s regulations.

“They’re saying now I might be able to start wearing my beard, but I think that is going to make us bigger targets,” he said, voicing his disillusionment. “I don’t think the Army is addressing anything. I think they are trying to appear like they are, but in reality, it will make it more difficult for us.”

When the soldier was at his lowest point of discouragement, he contacted Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Weinstein, former legal counsel in the White House under Ronald Reagan, a registered Republican and retired Air Force officer, replied to the soldier’s email within 20 minutes.

Weinstein is a controversial advocate for religious freedom for members of the armed forces. His organization has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize six times, but groups like the Family Research Council refer to Weinstein as anti-Christian.

When Weinstein's foundation became involved, a nativity scene was removed from the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station this Christmas, a painting with a Bible verse was removed from an Air Force Base in Idaho and the anonymous soldier’s superiors were fired.

Weinstein blames religious intolerance in the military on a “Christian Taliban” of “fundamentalist Christians” run amok.

“They’re now saying, ‘We are the ones being victimized, we are now the prey,’ when they were the predators,” Weinstein recently said from his office in New Mexico. “We see (that religious persecution) is more vicious, more violent, more stealthy and more pronounced.”

Weinstein advocates that commanders not place Bibles on their desktops because it might intimidate their subordinates. But while coercion and bullying are not the solution to greater religious freedom, neither is wiping away all traces of religion from the military, said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Individuals in the military should respect one another, even if their religious views differ, Blomberg says. Those who are offended by differing religions shouldn’t need to get the government involved to resolve their differences, he said, “Religious liberty means we agree to disagree and treat people in a respectful way.”

“A good test is, at the end of the day, are you creating more liberty for other people, or are you trying to shut down liberty for other people?” Blomberg said. “If you are creating more liberty, you’re going in the right direction.”

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