THE BLOG
11/25/2014 03:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Religious Accommodation -- A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Fireworks at the Hearing- Representative Forbes(R-VA) vs. Mikey Weinstein Executive Director of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation

Anyone who has ever watched a Congressional hearing knows it is a set up. The majority runs the show. They select the majority of witnesses for any given panel. The outcome is preordained. Just this last Wednesday, November 19, 2014, when the Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee held its second hearing on Religious Accommodation in the Armed Services it was not just a set up, it was far more- the perfect ambush.

The five-person panel was made up of three ultra conservative Christians from the Liberty Institute, Family Research Counsel and the Chaplains Alliance for Religious Liberty. They were "balanced" by a retired Jewish Navy Chaplain and Mikey Weinstein, also Jewish, from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

The purported purpose of the hearing was to hear the views of nongovernmental parties about the recent changes in religious accommodation mandated by Congress. In the last two, must pass, National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAA), Congress, at the behest of ultra conservative Christians, included provisions that expanded the rights of service members and chaplains to express their religious beliefs. On its face, the expansion of such a right would appear perfectly fine. But, part of what is really going on is an attempt by the ultra conservative Christians in Congress to allow chaplains to witness for Christ to all service members AT ALL TIMES, without fear of accountability.

If you watch the video of the hearing, you will notice that the only Democrat attending and asking questions was the subcommittee ranking member, Susan Davis (D-CA) (Jewish). Where were the rest of the Democrats? On the Republican side, there were not only the chair of the subcommittee, Joe Wilson (R-SC)(Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church),and fellow subcommittee member, Walter Jones (R-NC)(Roman Catholic but previously Southern Baptist), but also seven ultra conservative Christian members of Congress, not members of the subcommittee, who were permitted to question the witnesses. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Randy Forbes (R-VA), John Fleming (R-LA), and Doug Collins (R-GA) are all Southern Baptists. Vickie Hartzler (R-MO) is a member of the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches. Doug Lanborn (R-CO) claims to be a nondenominational Christian and Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) is a devout Roman Catholic. With these reinforcements the ambush was set.

The true goal of the chair was to establish that Christian evangelists, including chaplains, were having their religious expressions unjustly limited. This hearing was a set up to prove that, even with these new protections, Christians were being mistreated and oppressed. Congress would therefore be compelled, in the next annual NDAA, to provide unprecedented legal protections beyond those already the law.

This claim of persecution of Christians is not new. The Family Research Council and others have been making hyped up, often false, accusations for the past several years. Many of these claims of persecution have been debunked and completely discredited. In reality, it is ultra conservative Christians, and the evangelistic chaplains who share their strict partisan biblical opinions, who are unhappy with the cultural changes in the Military. The real elephant in the room at this hearing was the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"(DADT) law and the finding by the Supreme Court that portions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) were unconstitutional. Is it purely coincidental that the members of Congress participating in this hearing, as well as the conservative members of the panel, were some of the strongest obstructionists to the repeal of DADT and staunch supporters of DOMA?

What is happening to the Military is that the chaplaincy has been taken over by ultra conservative Christians who not only object to these cultural changes, but who see the armed services as a mission for Jesus. While they make up 18 percent of the Force, they have 63 percent of the chaplains. It is these chaplains who want unfettered access to be able to publically ostracize LGB service members, and also proselytize aggressively, without restriction. They are looking to their allies in Congress to aid and abet them.

As this charade of hearing was going on in DC, contrary to the testimony of several of the panelist that there was never proselytizing in the field, an evangelistic Christian chaplain was using a mandatory event to do just that. During a compulsory suicide prevention-training program at a Ranger Battalion in Georgia, this chaplain proclaimed " Invite Jesus into whatever you are feeling." Mandatory troop formations have never been appropriate venues for religious proselytizing of any kind, an axiom seasoned chaplains have always respected.

What these members of Congress don't seem to understand, or more likely don't care about, is that the military chaplaincy is different from ministry in the civilian world. As one chaplain endorser and member of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy recently stated:

Military chaplains exist first and foremost 'to perform or provide for the free exercise of religion.' There is a sacred institutional trust that chaplains must save their theology and creeds for formal worship services and/or private, client-invited pastoral counseling. Suicide prevention presentations and other mandatory presentations, ceremonies, and personnel formations are NOT the time to theologically opine and sermonize. Chaplains should and are mandated to be sensitive to the needs of A-L-L in their spiritual care and institutional responsibility -- and they are never to attempt to proselytize or even opine when such possibly can be construed as either coercive or an undue influence! I would think that such actions in the context of mandatory formations and presentations and even written columns in official unit publications could easily be construed as command-sponsored or command-endorsed policies or positions and as such are likely violations of that sacred trust, if not outright illegal. If professional military chaplains are uncomfortable laboring with sensitivity and sincere adherence to and genuine respect for their proper roles in such contexts, it may be time for some chaplains to reconsider their sense of calling and definition of ministry -- before the military is compelled to take action to insure the rights as well as the (career and emotional) safety of personnel.

The accommodation being considered by this committee is clearly a subterfuge to allow criticizing of LGB service members and proselytizing of all non-Christians. While any legislation this committee might propose would give cover to these ultra conservative Christian chaplains and their fellow believers, it would in all probability also have an adverse impact on those service members who do not share these religious beliefs. Such unrestricted criticism and proselytizing would clearly have a negative effect on unit morale, good order and discipline. Providing legal cover, with no accountability, would be counterproductive for the military, may present a challenge to the military chaplaincy's continued survival and viability, and clearly would be bad for our country.