OPP Attends Forum on Religious Freedom in the Military

May 19, 2010

On May 18th, 2010, representatives from the Office of Public Policy attended a panel discussion hosted by the Interfaith Alliance entitled, Religious Freedom in the Military: Where Do We Stand? The purpose of the forum was to begin a new initiative that can identify problems, work constructively with military officials and members of Congress, and propose solutions that respect both religious freedom and the separation of church and state within the armed forces.

The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance began by recognizing the deep-rooted problems that exist in our military today, “Both at home and abroad, challenges arise around issues such as proselytizing, using sectarian language, displaying religious symbols, and reading sacred scriptures. Our goal is to….explore productive models for an appropriate presence of religion in the military for those who want it.”

Joining Rev. Gaddy in the discussion were five distinguished experts on the role that religion plays in the military, including Dr. Kristen Leslie, Associate Professor of Patoral Care and Counseling at Yale Divinity School and a Consultant to the United States Air Force Academy; Dr. Martin L. Cook, Admiral James Bond Stockdale Professor of Professional Military Ethics at the United States Naval War College; Brigadier General (U.S. Army, retired) Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin, the Former Assistant Chief of Chaplains in the U.S. Army; Major (U.S. Army retired) David E. Fitzkee, an Associate Professor of Law at the U.S. Air Force Academy; and Mohamed Elsanousi, Director of Community Outreach at the Islamic Society of North America.

The panelists went on to identify several troubling areas where the military or military service members were infringing on the religious freedoms and ignoring the separation of church and state, often unknowingly. As Dr. Cook put it, “What does it mean for an officer to take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States if he or she doesn’t even know what the Constitution says about religious freedom and church-state separation?” Major Fitzkee noted that it is often unclear where lines should be drawn; “To what extent can officers encourage and participate in prayer at meetings, or place religious symbols in their offices?”

Looking more closely at the issue of religious freedom in the military, Fitzkee asked to what extent the military should accommodate religious beliefs. He noted that some beliefs run counter to unit cohesion, such as the need for observant Muslims to pray five times per day, or observant Jews to not work on the Sabbath. “Clearly,” he said, “the military cannot and should not accommodate every viewpoint. There comes a point when you must say, ‘I’m sorry, but this is not permissible in a military setting.’”

Taking that theme and running with it, Dr. Cook and General Drazin raised the issue of proselytizing. Noting that for some people, their sole mission in life is to bring people to see their religion as the one truth, Cook remarked, “If [proselytizing] is your sole calling in life, then you probably should find another job.” Drazin concurred, saying that all members of the military must respect the diversity of religious beliefs present. He noted that atheists are among the uniformed members of the military, and that pushing any belief or non-belief on another person or making them feel unwelcome because of their belief or lack of belief is abhorrent to everything the military stands for.

In one segment, Dr. Elsanousi focused on the unique issues facing Muslim Americans in the U.S. military. He noted that there needs to be a greater level of awareness and education within the service. He anecdotally told the story of a young Muslim woman who was told by a sympathetic military recruiter that she would be able to wear her hijab as part of her military uniform. Upon entering her unit, however, her commander told her that it was completely unacceptable. Esanousi said that military recruiters should be educated about what will be and won’t be allowed. He continued by calling for greater education among chaplains so that they can be sensitive and knowledgeable to Muslim needs.

Overall, the dialogue began what is sure to be a much longer conversation on the role of religion and religious freedom in the armed forces. Not touched upon were hot-button issues such as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which is commonly seen as a sectarian religious policy that asserts that gays and lesbians should not be able to serve openly because their sexuality is “immoral” in some way. As the dialogue continues, we hope to see positive outcomes that allow religious members of the military to practice their personal beliefs without infringing on the rights of others, and without any government endorsement of religion.

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#1 Rick O'Keefe (Guest) on Wednesday May 19, 2010 at 2:26pm

This sounds promising, and is a worthy effort for CFI. Good for you for taking a leadership role, Toni & management.

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