Religious freedom in the military is a hot topic following a controversial meeting between Pentagon officials and an anti-Christian activist seeking to remove God from the military, and now Congress is on the verge of preserving those freedoms through the annual National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.
The furor over the rights of service members to share their faith peaked in April and May after Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation held a meeting with Pentagon leaders and reportedly received assurances that members of the military found sharing their faith would be prosecuted.
The Pentagon tried to tamp down criticism of those stories by saying expressing one's faith is fine but proselytizing is not.
Now, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, is advancing an amendment to the NDAA that would guarantee service members not only the right to believe as they wish but to express those beliefs freely as well.
"It allows for military members to exercise their First Amendment right within appropriate limits, so that not only can they maintain their beliefs of conscience ... but also they can express it and they can take action, which means they can have a Bible on their desk or they can speak in a noncoercive fashion with other members," said Fleming, who added that the amendment would not allow service members to disobey orders.
"If your commanding officer says, 'Get in that tank and go shoot,' you can't say all of a sudden that, 'It's against my religion.' You can't do that," he said.
In addition to the Pentagon meeting with Weinstein, several stories of religious freedoms being infringed concern Fleming. He said service personnel have been reprimanded for having a Bible on their desk, been denied promotion because of their beliefs, expressing their beliefs in blogs and other forums or even serving Chick-fil-A at a promotion event. Fleming said that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"It was pretty clear that there was a common thread of suppression for free speech, particularly for those who express religious beliefs and even particularly more for those who express Christian beliefs," he said. "In some of their training at the Pentagon, they claim that evangelical Christianity is an extremism and consistent with the KKK and al-Qaida."
The restrictions on military chaplains are also alarming to Fleming.
"Chaplains have to have their speeches reviewed and accepted and certainly have words like 'Jesus' removed from a Christian chaplain's prayer or a situation where they're not even allowed to hand a Bible to someone or share their faith with someone. That's really what we've become," he said.
However, Fleming is encouraged that his amendment has sailed through the House Armed Services Committee and was part of the NDAA that passed the full House Friday. He said there was strong bipartisan support for it. In addition, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is advancing the amendment in the Senate. It has passed the democratically controlled Senate Armed Services Committee and now awaits consideration from the full Senate.
But not everyone is on board. The Obama administration released a statement in recent days urging rejection of the amendment to protect the sharing of faith, claiming it would have "a significant adverse effect on good order, discipline, morale and mission accomplishment."
However, Fleming said that's simply untrue, and he is not fazed by the White House opposition. He believes if the Senate approves the NDAA with the religious freedom language, Obama won't be in the mood to pick a fight with so many members of his own party and will sign it into law.