Our servicemen and women put their lives on the line every day in order to protect our constitutionally guaranteed rights, including the expression of our beliefs. Congress must ensure that we are protecting them as well. —Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah
Two U.S. senators have pushed forward a second challenge to the Obama administration's opposition to legislative language that offers a “protection of rights of conscience of members of the Armed Forces and chaplains.”
An amendment to the defense funding bill was approved last week by the Senate Armed Services Committee that "clarifies that expressions of belief that do not have an adverse impact on military readiness, good order, and discipline are to be accommodated by the Armed Services," according to a news release from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who co-sponsored the amendment.
The Senate amendment comes a week after a House committee approved adding similar language to its version of the Defense Authorization Act. The New American reported that the vote prompted a veto threat from the White House.
"The White House complained that by 'limiting the discretion of commanders to address potentially problematic speech and actions within their units, this provision would have a significant adverse effect on good order, discipline, morale and mission accomplishment.' "
The amendment's sponsor, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said the amendment is needed to address reports of discrimination against people of faith serving in the military. "My amendment is necessary to ensure that men and women of faith will not be discriminated against in the Armed Forces, and will be free to exercise their religious beliefs,” he said in a statement.
Conservative Christian groups have pointed to several cases of the military targeting Christians, prompting exaggerated claims of an anti-religion conspiracy within the Armed Services and that professing one's faith could lead to a court martial.
The Pentagon responded with a statement stressing that no religious group has been singled out for persecution and that “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).”
But that hardly settled the issue, wrote Mollie Hemingway in the Wall Street Journal.
"For one thing, the Pentagon statement clarifying that military personnel would not be court-martialed if they 'evangelize' also said that 'proselytization' is considered a Uniform Code of Military Justice offense. Yet the definitions of those two words are almost identical: Merriam-Webster defines proselytization as 'to recruit or convert especially to a new faith, institution, or cause' and evangelize as 'to preach the gospel to or to convert to Christianity.' "
The congressmen say their amendments to the defense funding bill respond to that ambiguity.
“Our servicemen and women put their lives on the line every day in order to protect our constitutionally guaranteed rights, including the expression of our beliefs. Congress must ensure that we are protecting them as well," Lee said.
Fleming's amendment wasn't the only religious liberty issue the House Armed Services Committee dealt with last week. The Navy Times reported the panel also passed an amendment that would allow chaplains to follow the traditions, expressions and religious exercises of their faith.
"Chaplains already have the right under existing policy to follow practices of their own faith during a religious service, but (the) amendment expands this to include situations when a chaplain is called upon to lead a prayer."
The committee rejected a proposal to add atheists, humanists and “ethical culturalists” to the chaplains corps to provide guidance and counsel to service members, the Times reported.
"Objections were raised because chaplains require a religious sponsor, something not possible for someone who belongs to no group. Another concern was that general counseling services are available to service members through other military programs."