Archbishop Broglio: Religious Harassment Complaint Could Still End Military Career

February 10, 2014 - 4:17 PM

Archbishop Timothy Broglio

Archbishop Timothy Broglio receives an Army Ranger St. Michael medallion from Army Chaplain Charlie Shields in 2011. (Eglin AFB)

(CNSNews.com) -- Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who heads the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, says it would be an “exaggeration” to say that Christians in the military are being persecuted for their faith. But he noted that complaining about religious harassment could still be a career ender for military personnel.

“I don’t think people have to be frightened of living according to their faith,” Broglio said, adding that it’s more of a “heightened sensitivity to diversity…that’s made commanders and others very careful about what they say and do.”

But when asked if many Christian service members feel intimidated by an implied threat that openly expressing their religious beliefs could negatively affect their military careers, Broglio told CNSNews.com: “Yes, and that is a concern. I would advise them to do what Francis of Assisi said: ‘Preach the Gospel always, and when absolutely necessary use words.’”

On January 29, Lt. Gen. William Boykin (Ret.) testified before the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel that “a growing trend in the military reveals a remarkable disregard for what have been assumed as basic religious liberties of service members in the past.”

Archbishop Broglio added that the issue of religious freedom “almost always comes up” when he visits commanding officers at various military installations around the country.

“I think that’s what happened is because there is such a fear about proselytizing, people are very sensitive to what they say and do,” he told CNSNews.com. “I’ve been asked by any number of commanders, and I say you live your faith by the way that influences how you speak, and how you act, and how you think. There’s a difference between that and saying to someone, 'Do you go to church?' - particularly to a subordinate.”

Changes in the Defense Department’s Accommodation of Religious Practices, which went into effect on January 22, say that “the DoD places a high value on the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all….In so far as practicable, a Service member’s expression of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) may not be used as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training or assignment.”

But Archbishop Broglio said that’s exactly what’s happened in the past. For example, some service members have been chastised for displaying religious objects.

“There have been some instances where people have been told, you know, that they can’t have a religious picture on their desk, or something like that. But I think...if that kind of a decision would be contested, that the individual would probably win,” he told CNSNews.com.

“But you understand, and this might be a good thing to make clear, that of course a military person can’t sue. But I mean, he could bring in the Inspector General, but it would probably be the end of that person’s career.

“We had the classic example during the postcard campaign about partial-birth abortion when a priest in Washington who was an Air Force chaplain, Fr. [Vincent] Rigdon, sued the Air Force, and he won,” Broglio continued. “The courts said that what you do in the context of a religious service is determined by the religious service, not by the respective military service. But I mean, that effectively ended his Air Force career.”

In 1996, the  Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sued the Clinton DoD on behalf of Fr. Rigdon and his co-plaintiffs, including a rabbi and an imam, over an order forbidding them from telling their congregations to send postcards to their representatives in Congress urging them to vote for a bill prohibiting partial-birth abortion.

U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Sporkin ruled against “the government’s attempt to override the Constitution and the laws of the land by a directive that clearly interferes with military chaplains’ free exercise and free speech rights, as well as those of their congregants.”

But isn’t that a kind of persecution, when a service member does something that’s perfectly legal and within his constitutional rights, and yet his career is destroyed anyway? CNSNews.com asked Broglio.

“Well, yes it is, but in his case I would say it was more of a gesture which actually obtained for us something that is never questioned. For instance, we had that little skirmish with the Army about my letter, but that was not questioned at all at the Air Force because they knew right away that they had nothing to say about that."

Fr. Rigdon "set a precedent so no, it’s clear in people’s minds that that kind of situation, or an analogous situation, does not depend on the military authorities, it depends on the ecclesiastical authorities.”

Do the troops understand that even though that they are under the Military Code of Discipline, they still retain their First Amendment religious rights?” CNSNews.com asked Broglio.

“I think in general it’s understood, but I think sometimes because of the publicity and because of some of the issues that have arisen about such things as Christmas crèches and menorahs, that people are perhaps a little bit confused in terms what they can and what they can’t do,” Broglio replied.

“And that’s why it’s important to remind them that when they raise their right hand to pledge to defend the Constitution, they’re not surrendering their own rights.”