Thursday, February 6, 2014

New Law Boosts Religious Liberty Safeguards for Military Chaplains

New provisions of federal law governing the Defense Department have significantly increased protections for religious freedom in the military, an official of the Presbyterian & Reformed Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel told GPTS students recently.

Retired Army Chaplain Col. Mack Griffith, associate director of the PRCC, outlined the new provisions during a post-chapel missions lunch at the seminary on Feb. 5. A number of former GPTS graduates are serving in military chaplaincies and at least one current student plans to do so. GPTS is authorized by the Defense Department to train military chaplains.

The most significant amendments to the Defense Authorization Bill passed by Congress and signed by the president in December safeguard actions, expressions and practices as well as the formerly protected beliefs of military chaplains and service members, Col. Griffith said. Under the new law, prayers in Jesus' name, refusal to perform same-sex marriages, displaying a Christian cross and similar overt actions would be protected as well as personally held inner beliefs. The changes were made to Section 533: Protection of Rights of Conscience of Members of the Armed Forces and Chaplains of Such Members, subsection a) Protection of Rights of Conscience.

The new provisions on religious "Accommodation" in that section, once vigorously opposed by President Obama, include this language (new wording in italics):
Unless otherwise compelled by cases of military necessity for good order and discipline, the Armed forces shall accommodate the expressions of belief of a member of the armed forces reflecting the sincerely held conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the member and, in so far as practicable, may not use such expressions of belief as the basis of any adverse personnel actin, discrimination, or denial of promotions, schooling, training, or assignment.
Col. Griffith acknowledged that some hostile unit commanders and liberal chaplaincy officers may find creative ways to circumvent the new safeguards. He said, however, that in recent meetings with the head chaplains of all of the military service branches, chaplains were assured that they would do all in their power to enforce the new religious practices safeguards. Furthermore, other new provisions of the law require implementation of new regulations supporting the law within 90 days of passage. And the new law requires the secretary of defense to "consult with the official military faith-group representative who endorse military chaplains." The consultation provision may have been designed to thwart what some Christians have viewed as the behind-the-scenes stealth influence on the Pentagon of vehemently anti-Christian activist Mikey Weinstein.

The PRCC is one of the "endorsing" organizations. Col. Griffith pointed out that required consultation with endorsing groups is significant because beliefs and actions of military chaplains are evaluated, not on the basis of personal beliefs or denominational standards, but on the basis of the published statements of doctrine and practices of the chaplain endorsing groups. The PRCC is a coalition of seven conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations, including the Presbyterian Church in America, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, the United Reformed Churches in North America, the Korean American Presbyterian Church, and Korean Presbyterian Church in America-Koshin.

Previous law did not prohibit discipline when religious actions or speech "threaten" good order and discipline. The new law keeps that language as the compromise bill rejected language in the House version that changed the word "threaten" to "actual harm." Under the House version, military discipline officials would have had to show that the speech or actions caused "actual harm" rather than a mere "threat" to good order and military discipline. "'Actually harm' is all after the fact. Under the House proposal, the Nidal Hassan shooting [at Ft. Hood] would have had to take place before the military could act," a PRCC fact sheet noted.

The new safeguards for religious freedom come on the heels of a spate of recent reports of crackdowns by commanders and Pentagon officials against mostly Christian servicemen and chaplains who take conscientious stands on their religious positions. High on the list of newly suspect positions is opposition to same-sex marriage. Actions have also been taken to ban specifically Christian prayers, crosses, and Bibles in a variety of settings both on and off the battlefield. Retired Chaplain Brig. Gen. Doug Lee, head of PRCC, recently told a gathering of chaplains in Greenville, S.C., "You are in the military in a new era."

Col. Griffith said that despite the news reports, religious freedom is still very strong within the military services, especially on the battlefield, where even non-religious commanders recognize the value of spiritual guidance. He said the new law strengthens those freedoms in the face of recent persecution of Christians in the military.

GPTS alumni and students serving in chaplain capacities include: Cornelius Johnson, Air Force, 2000; Kyle Brown, Army, 2004; Steve Scott, Navy/Coast Guard, 2005; Mike Myers, Army Reserve, 2013; senior, Ross Fearing, Army Reserve; and Steve Walton, 2012, reservest, church plant in Stuggart, Germany outside Army fort.