Despite Congressional efforts in the past several years to address religious liberty issues in the military, and DoD assertions that the problems are not all that bad, restrictions on service-members’ expression of their religious faith continue to this day.
Congress is rightly concerned about these restrictions, which have continued to occur despite its explicit direction in the past two National Defense Authorization Acts, that service-members’ religious expression must be protected. For this reason, the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee held a hearing this past Wednesday at which I testified regarding these ongoing problems.
For example, just last month, Colonel Florencio Marquinez, who is stationed with the Ohio Air National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing, told his personal life story and talked about his professional journey in a unit newsletter. Yet, shortly after it appeared, his story was censored and removed from publication. The offense? Colonel Marquinez had referred to the importance of his religious faith and how God had been a source of strength in his life. This censorship has not yet been corrected.
Even if later corrected, such events create a chilling effect and bolster the perception that religious beliefs must be hidden to maintain one’s standing in the military.
This censorship of religious expression reveals a misunderstanding of a very basic truth: religion simply cannot be sectioned off into neat little compartments in our lives; it is integral to addressing all aspects of the human experience – including how we approach the issues of death and danger central to military service.
How can we ask service men and women to do a job which is so incredibly difficult, while at the same time divorcing them from the very spiritual resources they need to accomplish their jobs? Jeff Struecker, an Army Ranger who was sent back into a fire-fight in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia to rescue fallen comrades during the “Black Hawk Down” incident, recounts his reliance on God for strength in his ordeal. Are we prepared to go to Jeff Strueker and tell him that whenever he tells audiences about what happened to him: “God has no part in your story?” Indeed, no. Why should Colonel Marquinez be treated any differently? Colonel Marquinez and Jeff Struecker represent the stories of many, many service men and women who have relied on their religion to do the job the military calls them to do.
Those serving in our nation’s military need to know their own constitutional rights will be protected as they face danger to protect the exercise of those same rights safely here at home. To this end, it is our hope that Congress will require DoD to abide by explicit statutory protections for religious expression contained in the last two National Defense Authorization Acts, ensure that branch regulations reflect these protections, and make sure that military leaders (such as commanders, chaplains, and JAG officers) properly understand these protections.
Let me be clear – we are not advocating that anyone be coerced into religious practices against his or her will. But service men and women do not give up their constitutional rights simply because they join our nation’s military. Religious liberty – including the ability to speak of one’s religion – must be protected. Jeff Strueker, Colonel Marquinez, and the many others like them must have the freedom to tell of the role God plays in their lives. If we tear that from their grasp and deny them the ability to tell their story, we will be tearing the heart and soul out of the service of many brave men and women throughout our military.
Travis Weber, Esq., is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council. He is also a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a former Navy pilot.