The Pentagon has issued new guidance on religious liberty that critics say will encourage military superiors to push their beliefs on fellow service members and subordinates, according to Military Times.
- The revisions follow “pressure from Republican lawmakers to ‘prioritize protecting the rights and freedoms of service members’ in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
- Proponents are calling it a win for religious liberty.
- Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, told Military Times: “Service members don’t lose their religious freedom by virtue of being in the military.”
The revised regulation, DoD Instruction 1300.17, Religious Liberty in the Military Services, was unveiled earlier this month. It establishes Department of Defense policy “in furtherance of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment” and states that DoD components will “accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs” ― provided there are no adverse impacts on military readiness and unit cohesion. Such beliefs can include religious beliefs or moral principles, the guidance says.
- The guidance also says the expression of “sincerely held beliefs” will not be used for a “basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment.”
- Mikey Weinstein, the founder and president of Military Religious Freedom Foundation, argues that the new policy will “obliterate the wall of separation between church and state in our military.”
Others, like First Liberty, a conservative legal firm that advocates for religious liberty and First Amendment rights, have lauded it as a “great victory for America’s brave service members” and claim it reflects the principles included in President Donald Trump’s 2017 executive order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.”
The Pentagon has faced increased pressure recently to update its religious liberty policies. Conservative Republican lawmakers and First Liberty have issued a series of letters over the past year, urging the Defense Department to take action. In May, for example, 20 lawmakers sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper arguing that senior military leaders “continue to violate the religious liberty” of chaplains in the military.
First Liberty and Republican lawmakers have recently upped pressure on the Pentagon to change its religious liberty guidance.
“If we want our military to remain the strongest, most capable military, we’ve got to ensure that our troops don’t lose their constitutional freedoms because otherwise, they’re going to start asking, ‘Why are we fighting?’” Berry said.
But Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, argued that those who serve in the military are under a different standard than their civilian counterparts. He pointed to a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case, Parker v. Levy, which says the court “has long recognized that the military is, by necessity, a specialized society separate from civilian society.”
“While the members of the military are not excluded from the protection granted by the First Amendment, the different character of the military community and of the military mission requires a different application of those protections,” the Supreme Court wrote.
Weinstein said in a statement to Military Times:
“Indeed, MRFF will never allow this brand-new regulatory provision to illicitly buttress the already repugnant and omnipresent efforts of the fundamentalist Christian religious right from perpetuating its pervasive and pernicious pattern and practice of forcing its weaponized version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ upon otherwise defenseless military subordinates.”