Thursday, January 17, 2013

We Need To Protect Religious Freedom for Military Chaplains

Congressman J. Randy Forbes

One of President Obama's first moves in 2013 was to sign into law the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), legislation that authorizes and prioritizes funding for the Department of Defense and other select national security programs.  Along with his signature, President Obama issued a statement criticizing several portions of the bill—including the religious freedom protections for military chaplains and other service members.

The President called the provisions "unnecessary and ill-advised," and said "The Secretary of Defense will ensure that the implementing regulations do not permit or condone discriminatory actions that compromise good order and discipline or otherwise violate military codes of conduct.  My Administration remains fully committed to continuing the successful implementation of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and to protecting the rights of gay and lesbian service members; Section 533 will not alter that."  Regulations issued by the Department of Defense will determine specifically how the conscience protections are implemented.

The repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the military in 2011 raised concerns that service members whose religious beliefs conflicted with homosexual behavior would face discrimination and disapproval.  Despite the President's statement to the contrary, the religious freedom protections contained in the NDAA do not authorize discriminatory actions.  Instead, they require the Armed Forces to accommodate service members' religious convictions, as long as they do not "threaten good order and discipline." 

The language also prohibits the military from using a person's beliefs as the basis for adverse personnel action, and ensures that chaplains will not be forced "to perform any rite, ritual, or ceremony that is contrary to [their] conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs."

Members of the Prayer Caucus worked aggressively to ensure that the final version of the defense authorization bill included these key religious freedom protections.  While President Obama has indicated his eagerness to protect the rights of gay and lesbian service members, one also hopes he will support measures to ensure citizens need not leave their faith at home when they volunteer to serve.

I want to know what you think about this issue. Weigh-in on the Congressional Prayer Caucus blog by clicking here.