POLITICS
07/25/2013 06:57 pm ET

Louie Gohmert Piles Distortion Upon Distortion

The Following post first appeared on FactCheck.org.

Rep. Louie Gohmert went on Fox News and accused President Obama of a pattern of discrimination against Christians, particularly in the military, but many of his examples were false, distorted or incomplete.

Here are just a few of the claims Gohmert made about the Obama administration:

  • He talked about “continued reports” of “crosses being removed from [military] chapels.” The military has a longstanding policy against permanent religious symbols being attached to military chapels. During the Bush administration, for example, the Army in 2008 removed three crosses from a chapel in Kosovo.
  • Gohmert said that “it’s considered an act of hostility if you give somebody a Bible on their death bed or mention God” at the Walter Reed military hospital. He’s referring to a poorly worded hospital memo that sought to address patient complaints about proselytizing. The memo was quickly rescinded and never enforced.
  • He claimed the Obama administration “appointed three different ambassadors to the Vatican that were pro-abortion.” The administration has appointed two ambassadors to the Vatican, and neither supports abortion rights.
  • Gohmert claimed Attorney General Eric Holder issued a Department of Justice memo “that directs that you must openly embrace gay marriage and homosexuality. And silence is considered to be disapproval.” Gohmert was referring to a brochure from an employee association that included advice for managers dealing with gay employees. It was not an official department memo or directive.
  • He asked that while Obama “celebrates Ramadan at the White House, when was the last time he had Israeli leaders to celebrate Passover?” Obama is the first president to host Passover Seders, and he typically invites friends, family and staff each year. We could find no evidence of Israeli leaders attending the Seders, but Obama has regularly invited Israeli officials to an annual Hanukkah reception at the White House.
  • Gohmert claimed the military has cracked down on “just friends talking or providing a Bible or having a cross or … a Bible out on display.” In fact, Defense Department policy prescribes that “service members can share their faith, but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs.”

Gohmert, a Texas Republican, made his remarks July 15 on Fox News. He was asked to talk about an amendment added to the National Defense Authorization Act by Rep. John Fleming that seeks to expand protection for religious “actions and speech” of those serving in the military. Previous versions of the act referred only to protecting the “religious beliefs” of service members from “any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment.” (See Section 530)

The White House released a statement opposing the change, arguing that it could hamstring officers addressing problems with proselytizing:

White House, June 11: 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.”

Gohmert claimed in the Fox interview that Obama has “allowed abuse of Christians in the military, unlike any other religion.” Gohmert then went on to list a litany of alleged instances of discrimination against Christianity by Obama and his administration — much of it drawing from the most conservative corners of the blogosphere. There was so much innuendo and misinformation in Gohmert’s answer that we hardly know where to begin.

Crosses Removed from Chapels

Gohmert: We have had continued reports, really blatant, going after military members, crosses being removed from chapels.

It’s true that in 2011, the U.S. Army removed a cross from the front of a chapel located in northern Afghanistan. But that’s in keeping with a longstanding military policy against having any religious symbols — including crosses — permanently affixed to military chapels. By design, military chapels are supposed to be nonsectarian and accommodating to all faiths.

Here’s the Army policy (AR-165-1, page 36):

Army Regulations: The chapel environment will be religiously neutral when the facility is not being used for scheduled worship. Portable religious symbols, icons, or statues may be used within a chapel during times of religious worship. Symbols are to be moved or covered when not in use during services. Distinctive religious symbols, such as crosses, crucifixes, the Star of David, Menorah, and other religious symbols will not be affixed or displayed permanently on the chapel interior, exterior, or grounds. Permanent or fixed chapel furnishings, such as the altar, pulpit, lectern, or communion rail will be devoid of distinctive religious symbols. (AR-165-1, page 36)

This policy long predates the Obama administration. In 2008, during the Bush administration, for example, the Army removed three crosses from a chapel in Kosovo.

Hostile to Give an Ailing Vet a Bible?

Gohmert: And so, we hear constant reports from the military. We’re not supposed to hand anybody a Bible. At Walter Reed, you’re not supposed to bring anybody a Bible. It’s considered an act of hostility if you give somebody a Bible on their death bed or mention God or try to help them even if they’re seeking guidance at the end of their life.

Here’s the small truth upon which this house of cards was built: On Sept. 14, 2011, the commander of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center issued revised visitation guidelines for the behavior of family members or other “partners in care” in which he stated: “No religious items (i.e. Bibles, reading material, and/or artifacts) are allowed to be given away or used during a visit.” (Posted courtesy of Snopes.com)

Department of Defense officials said the intent was to protect patients from proselytizers, but after the memo was criticized on the House floor by Iowa Rep. Steve King, the military acknowledged that the wording was overly broad and said that the memo would be rewritten. Hospital officials acknowledged the error in an Army Times story on Dec. 7, 2011.

Army Times, Dec. 7, 2011: The intent was to respect patients’ religious practices and preserve their privacy, explained hospital spokeswoman Sandy Dean. She said patients often are visited by volunteers from benevolent organizations as well as strangers, ranging from celebrities, politicians and well-meaning VIPs, and the guidelines were developed to respect patients’ own beliefs.

“If the family, if friends, wanted to bring things in, it was fine,” Dean said. “The way the policy was written was incorrect. … We are rewriting the policy,” she said.

… Dean said the guidelines are necessary because the hospital needs to protect its patients, who declare their religious preferences when they arrive.

“We want to make sure that visitors are respecting our patients’ religious practices and culture,” she said.

As promised, the policy memo was rescinded and replaced the following month, with the offending part about religious items removed completely.

An information paper released by Defense Department in May 2012 explained the controversy. (Also posted by Snopes)

DOD Information Paper, May 15, 2012: The policy in question was established after receiving complaints from Warriors and their families at both Walter Reed Army Medical Center and National Naval Medical Center who were approached by unsolicited faith-based groups visiting the inpatient wards. Patients and families reported that these groups were proselytizing and making disparaging remarks about Warrior’s service, sometimes using threatening and condemning language. According to the patients, some visits were persistent and repeated.

The WRNMMC policy was not intended to nor did it ever have the effect of limiting religious expression of patients. The policy as written was incorrect and should have been more thoroughly reviewed before its release. It has been rescinded. Family members have been and will always be allowed to bring religious materials and texts.

In other words, it was a short-lived policy memo, never enforced, and quickly corrected. Gohmert’s comments, in the present tense, suggest this is an ongoing policy at Walter Reed. He’s also wrong that in the military in general, “We’re not supposed to hand anybody a Bible.”

As Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Defense Department spokesman, explained to FactCheck.org via email:

Christensen, July 17: The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions and respects (and supports by its policy) the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs. The Department does not endorse any one religion or religious organization, and provides free access of religion for all members of the military services.

Service members may exercise their rights under the 1st Amendment regarding the free exercise of religion unless doing so adversely affects good order, discipline, or some other aspect of the military mission; even then, the Department seeks a reasonable religious accommodation for the service member. In general, service members may share their faith with other service members, but may not forcibly attempt to convert others of any faith or no faith to their own beliefs.

We work to ensure that all service members are free to exercise their Constitutional right to practice their religion — in a manner that is respectful of other individuals’ rights to follow their own belief systems; and in ways that are conducive to good order and discipline; and that do not detract from accomplishing the military mission.

‘Pro-Abortion’ Ambassadors to the Vatican

Gohmert: This administration appointed three different ambassadors to the Vatican that were pro-abortion. This administration has gone out of its way to thump Christians.

Let’s get this part out of the way up front: The Obama administration has appointed two ambassadors to the Vatican, and neither supports abortion rights.

So where does Gohmert get his information?

Gohmert’s press office pointed us toward an April 14, 2009, article in the Guardian that stated: “The Vatican has vetoed three of Barack Obama’s potential nominees as US ambassador amid a growing dispute between the White House and the Roman Catholic church over the new administration’s support for abortion rights and the lifting of a ban on stem cell research.” The claim was based on information provided by unnamed sources to Italy’s Il Giornale. The Italian newspaper claimed that the Vatican had rejected Caroline Kennedy — daughter of President John F. Kennedy and an advocate for abortion rights — and two other American Roman Catholics “who were unacceptable to the pope because they have publicly stood against church dogma.”

One of the other alleged ambassador candidates named in the story was Douglas Kmiec, a Catholic Republican who served in the Office of Legal Counsel for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. In the 2008 presidential election, Kmiec initially supported Republican Mitt Romney, but when Romney dropped out, Kmiec crossed party lines to support Obama. Although Gohmert referred to the three people cited in the report as “pro-abortion,” Kmiec explained in an article in Slate magazine endorsing Obama that “[a]s a Republican and as a Catholic, I believe life begins at conception, and it is important for every life to be given sustenance and encouragement.” While Kmiec, who was once dean of Catholic University’s law school, said he disagreed with Obama on abortion and other “fundamental” issues, he was convinced that Obama “wants to return the United States to that company of nations committed to human rights.” Obama later appointed Kmiec as ambassador to Malta.

The Guardian story did not name the third person rejected by the Vatican, so we can’t speak to whether this person — cited by unnamed sources — opposes abortion.

More important, though, none of the people named in the Guardian story were ever formally appointed by the Obama administration to serve as ambassador to the Vatican.

Asked about the three people allegedly rejected by the Vatican, the pope’s spokesman, Padre Federico Lombardi, told the Sydney Morning Herald, “No proposals for US ambassador have arrived in the Vatican, so nobody has been refused.”

“The rumours that have been circulating on this are not reliable,” Lombardi told the Herald.

Again, Obama has appointed only two ambassadors to the Vatican. In 2009, Obama appointed Miguel Diaz. Diaz is an anti-abortion Democrat, but raised concerns in some conservative Catholic circles for his support of Kathleen Sebelius when she was nominated to be secretary of Health and Human Services. Although Sebelius has been an advocate for abortion rights, Diaz was among the 26 “faithful Catholic” leaders who signed on to a letter of support for Sebelius, stating that she “agrees with church teaching that abortion is wrong and has lived and acted according to that belief.” The letter claims that the disagreement between Sebelius and the Church “has never been over the morality of abortion, but over what prudential policy is best in dealing with abortion.”

Diaz stepped down in November to teach at the University of Dayton, and in June, Obama appointed Ken Hackett, former president of Catholic Relief Services, to succeed Diaz. Like Hackett, Diaz also opposes abortion. In 2011, Hackett and Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote a letter to congressional leaders saying they “strongly support restoring the Mexico City Policy against funding groups that perform or promote abortion, and denying funding to the U.N. Population Fund which supports a program of coerced abortion and involuntary sterilization in China.”

So contrary to Gohmert’s assertion, Obama has appointed just two ambassadors to the Vatican, and neither supports abortion rights.

DOJ Pride Memo on Gay Employees

Gohmert: It’s also been true in the Department of Justice right now, directly under this president, his buddy, Eric Holder. There’s a memo that directs that you must openly embrace gay marriage and homosexuality. And silence is considered to be disapproval.

Gohmert is referring not to an actual Department of Justice memo, but a brochure from a group called DOJ Pride — an association of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Justice employees. DOJ Pride apparently did circulate to some employees a brochure called “LGBT Inclusion at Work: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Managers.” It includes advice for managers dealing with gay employees such as using inclusive language — “partner” or “significant other” or “spouse” rather than gender-specific words like “husband” or “wife” — when sending out invitations to office parties. It also recommends managers speak up when they hear derogatory jokes or comments.

The part of the brochure Gohmert referred to comes in a section on “how to respond if an employee comes out to you.” Sticking with its do-and-don’t theme, the brochure states: “Don’t judge or remain silent. Silence will be interpreted as disapproval. Do respond with interest and curiosity. Asking respectful questions will set a positive, supportive tone.” The brochure goes on to say that if, in a closed-door situation, employees tell you they are gay, “Do thank them for trusting you, ask if they’ve been made to feel safe and welcome in the workplace, and let them know about DOJ Pride.”

Readers can read the entire brochure and reach their own conclusions about whether they agree with the advice in it and whether it’s appropriate, but it was not an official memo from the Justice Department directing department policy. It was put together by DOJ Pride, which is simply an employee association, said Gina Talamona, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice. On its website “About” page, DOJ Pride says the group “serves as the recognized organization for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) employees working in the Department of Justice’s offices, boards and divisions.”

The group sent out the brochure on its own behalf, Talamona said. It is not Department of Justice policy, nor was it a Department of Justice directive.

It’s unclear how many Justice Department employees may have received the brochure.

“While there are no specific rules, the general practice is that employee associations send informational material to its members and from time to time may send information to others,” Talamona stated.

Taking on Muslims for ‘Anti-Homosexual Beliefs’

Gohmert: So, you know, this president says he’s a Christian. I take him at his word. But he certainly has not gone after Islam and its anti-homosexual beliefs the way he has allowed Christian groups to be attacked.

We’re not going to wade too deeply into this statement, except to note that just a few weeks before Gohmert made this remark, Obama was in Africa and called on all African countries to give gay people equal rights under the law. Although he did not single out Muslims, Obama was speaking at a joint press conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall. Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country that criminalizes homosexuality. According to an Amnesty International report, 38 African countries criminalize consensual same-sex conduct, and some of the harshest penalties come in countries that are predominantly Muslim, such as Mauritania, Somalia and Sudan.

Obama, June 27: But let me just make a general statement. The issue of gays and lesbians, and how they’re treated, has come up and has been controversial in many parts of Africa. So I want the African people just to hear what I believe, and that is that every country, every group of people, every religion have different customs, different traditions. And when it comes to people’s personal views and their religious faith, etcetera, I think we have to respect the diversity of views that are there.

But when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally. I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort. That’s my personal view. And I speak as somebody who obviously comes from a country in which there were times when people were not treated equally under the law, and we had to fight long and hard through a civil rights struggle to make sure that happens.

So my basic view is that regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, when it comes to how the law treats you, how the state treats you — the benefits, the rights and the responsibilities under the law — people should be treated equally. And that’s a principle that I think applies universally, and the good news is it’s an easy principle to remember.

White House Passover Celebrations

Gohmert: I mean, yet, he (Obama) celebrates Ramadan at the White House. When was the last time he had Israeli leaders to celebrate Passover? There just seems to be an assault on Judeo-Christian beliefs.

It’s true that the White House has regularly celebrated Ramadan at the White House and that diplomats from various Muslim countries have been invited. Last August was the fourth time Obama hosted an Iftar celebrating Ramadan at the White House, which posted on its website a list of the many members of the diplomatic corps invited to the event.

As for Passover celebrations, Obama is the first president in history to host Seders in the White House, a ritual that Obama began on the campaign trail in 2008 and that has become an annual tradition. He typically invites friends, family and staff. We couldn’t find any evidence that Obama ever invited any Israeli leaders to the celebration.

However, Gohmert is making an apples-to-oranges comparison. For starters, Ramadan is a month-long celebration while the Passover Seder is a ritual that is observed over one or two nights. Moreover, the White House holds an annual Hanukkah reception, and Obama has regularly invited various Israeli officials to it. Last December, for example, Obama hosted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, among other Jewish leaders, at the White House Hanukkah reception. In addition, Vice President Biden hosts an annual Rosh Hashanah reception at his residence. It is attended by numerous Jewish leaders, and press reports note that Israeli Ambassador Oren was again in attendance last September.

Talking Religion/Bibles on Display in the Military

Gohmert: To think that a commander in chief would allow hostility toward passing on a way to eternal life — not proselytizing, there are plenty of regulations against that – but actually just friends talking or providing a Bible or having a cross or… … a Bible out on display … Those who are fighting and ready to give up their lives to protect our religious freedom should be able to have their own.

There is no Army prohibition against having a Bible or a cross, providing one to a friend, nor about a service member talking to friends about their faith. We have written before about the limits of evangelizing and proselytizing in the military.

Here’s what Christensen, the Defense spokesman, wrote to us in an email:

Christensen, July 17: Service members can share their faith, but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs.

If a service member harasses another member on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, or disability, then the commander takes action based on the gravity of the occurrence.

Service members may exercise their rights under the 1st Amendment regarding the free exercise of religion unless doing so adversely affects good order, discipline, or some other aspect of the military mission; even then, the Department seeks a reasonable religious accommodation for the service member. In general, service members may share their faith with other service members, but may not forcibly attempt to convert others of any faith or no faith to their own beliefs.

Concerns about these issues are handled on a case by case basis by the leaders of the unit involved.

The U.S. Department of Defense has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution. The Department makes reasonable accommodations for all religions and celebrates the religious diversity of our service members.

The Cross at War Memorial in Mojave Desert

Gohmert: This administration has fought tooth and nail to prevent the cross from being re-erected in the Mojave Desert, memorial to World War I.

Gohmert is referring to a long and tortured legal case that dates to 2001. (At FactCheck.org, we last checked in on it back in 2009.) The case initially pitted the ACLU against the Veterans of Foreign Wars. More recently, the legal wrangling has mostly been between the VFW and the federal government. It is an arguable point whether the administration has “fought tooth to prevent the cross from being re-erected,” so we’ll just lay out some of the background and let you decide.

The whole legal ordeal began with a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2001 against the federal government, specifically against officials in charge of the National Park Service, demanding they remove a large permanent cross from a war memorial in the Mojave National Preserve. They argued it violated a constitutional requirement for separation of church and state on government property. In order to resolve the dispute, a land swap was arranged in 2004 to deed the land to a local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars so it could keep the cross on what would then be private land. But the legal dispute continued.

On April 10, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled against the ACLU in the case, allowing the cross to stand. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote: “The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement [of religion] does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.” The case was remanded back to California federal courts.

But that was not the end of the legal wrangling. The federal government claimed it was moving forward with the transfer process, but only after some conditions were met. The VFW intervened, arguing it already owned the one-acre property in question. The U.S. government and the ACLU opposed that intervention. Did the federal government fight to prevent the cross from being re-erected? The government certainly sought to impose some conditions before it would agree to transfer the land — with disputes arising over issues such as fencing, boundaries and access points. We won’t get into all the gory legal details, but suffice to say that after two years and intense legal wrangling (with the VFW case being led by Ted Cruz, now a U.S. senator), the land swap was ultimately consummated and a cross is on display at Sunrise Rock, a war memorial in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

“It did seem like pulling teeth from a crocodile for a period of time,” said Hiram Sasser of the Liberty Institute and co-counsel for the VFW in the legal dispute. “It was an unnecessarily long and arduous process.”

Ultimately, whether the Obama administration fought “tooth and nail” against the cross being re-erected is a matter of opinion. From Sasser’s point of view, Gohmert’s claim is consistent with “a layperson’s description of the particulars at that time, with a little extra oomph.”

– Robert Farley

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