THE BLOG
09/09/2013 03:24 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

Military Chaplains: Religious Freedom in the Public Square

Recently a friend called to ask if I was familiar with Section 529 of House Rule 1960, a bill moving through Congress that could become a law. I told him that I wasn't, and my friend replied that I ought to read this rule.

After doing some research and drawing from my experience as a former military chaplain, I was astounded to learn about the implications of Section 529 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, also known as House Rule 1960, commonly described as "Protection of the religious freedom of military chaplains to close a prayer outside of a religious service according to the traditions, expressions, and religious exercises of the endorsing faith group." As a person concerned about the Constitutional rights for religious freedom and liberty for all people, I was alarmed that there are some members of Congress who believe that we need to change law in the form of the United States Code, to enable military chaplains to offend and violate the religious freedom of others so that they can evangelize in the particular name of their god during military specific ceremonies.

This took me back to an experience with this sort of thing that occurred over 30 years ago. In 1980, after seven years of college and three years of parish ministry, I decided to return to active duty in the Navy. I began my military service in the 1960s as an enlisted man working as a logistics specialist. This time I would serve as a Navy chaplain.

I thought my solid background of prior Navy service had given me the requisite preparation I would need to embark upon my priestly vocation in the Armed Forces. I was ordered to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland for my first assignment. I approached my work with enthusiasm and curiosity. In fact, I sought out each new service opportunity as a possibility to learn more about what it meant to be a military chaplain and at the same time a priest of the Episcopal Church.

When a request came for a chaplain to offer prayers at the retirement ceremony for a Navy captain in the Dental Corps, I was eager to accept the assignment. Since I had never done anything like this before, I went to the wealth of written prayers that were available to me within my own Christian tradition and sought the resources of the Book of Common Prayer. Of course, I made appropriate changes so as to honor the service of the retiring Navy officer. I confidently offered my prayers at the indicated and appropriate moment, and then joined the other guests at the reception that followed. This was where the first of what would be many career calibrations occurred. The retiring officer came up to me, shook my hand and told me how much he appreciated my participation in the ceremony. Though his words conveyed thankfulness, something else was being communicated through the expression on his face. He went on to give voice to what was a sentinel teaching moment for me. With kindness and conviction he said that in the future I might want to consider approaching such military retirement events in a different fashion. As I was on the verge of taking offense at his words, he went on to say that ending my prayers with a subscription such as "...through Jesus Christ our Lord," might not be appropriate for persons who practiced the Jewish faith. He and the members of his family, many of whom were present at the ceremony, were all practicing Jews.

This event was the beginning of a journey on which I continue to this day. As I have learned how our forefathers, James Madison in particular, established necessary guidance for religious accommodation and establishment in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution I have discovered a very fine but necessary line between what is appropriate within one's own faith community and that which is appropriate within a public military ceremony.

In the public square, such as the Department of Defense, religion must be expressed differently in order to honor and protect the religious liberties of all parties present. I have learned that in the context of a faith based activity, such as a worship service, it is perfectly appropriate to use words and phrases that are unique to one's own faith community. On the other hand, I have learned that when I am in the context of a military event, such as a retirement ceremony, I must be considerate of the needs of all the participants. This also means that there will be times when the Constitutional guarantee of religious liberty means that the religious ministry professional will be required to figure out how to serve those who find all public religious expressions and activities to be objectionable.

In my opinion this unnecessary bill, Section 529 of HR 1960, is something of a "Trojan horse." It is a thinly veiled initiative which will allow some Christian chaplains to offer prayers in the spoken name of "Jesus Christ" whenever and wherever they are with whomever they happen to be gathered. Under the ostensible guise of "religious liberty" for chaplains, this proposal will in effect trounce the actual religious liberties of those who rightly should have access to freedom from an established religion in the public square. Those military members present at a military ceremony are often required by duty to be present and therefore may not have the ability to get up and leave. These military members will have to listen to the chaplains offend them -- and they will have no recourse.

Perhaps a good way to view this is in the words of Pope John Paul II in his 1960 encyclical about the mission of the Christian church. The late pope wrote, "The Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom, but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience." ("Redemptoris missio," Section 39, 1990)

I believe that these are freedoms which we must protect. Such protection is one of the basic foundations of our multi-faith American republic.

Bishop James "Jay" Magness is Bishop Suffragan for Federal Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Based in Washington DC, he is responsible for the pastoral care and oversight for armed forces chaplains, military personnel and families as well as oversight of federal hospitals, prisons, and correctional facilities. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2003 in the rank of Captain, serving as command chaplain of U.S. Joint Forces Command and fleet chaplain for the U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Prior to those assignments, from 1997 to 2000 he was on the Navy Chief of Chaplains' staff as personnel manager of the Navy Chaplain Corps.