A leading defender of Christians in the military says the crackdown on the free religious expression of Christians in uniform is increasing despite Pentagon assurances to the contrary, leading active-duty personnel to re-evaluate their careers and young Americans and their parents to reconsider service at all.
Recent discipline for military chaplains dispensing biblical counsel have made national headlines, but a recent piece in the Washington Times suggests enlistment numbers are in danger of dropping as well.
Liberty Institute represents chaplains in two high-profile cases as well as several other personnel reprimanded for their free expression of Christian beliefs. Senior counsel Michael Berry said the American people are paying attention and getting increasingly worried about what’s happening in the military.
“A great deal of Americans of faith, which is still a majority of our country, are looking at the environment and climate within our federal government and military more specifically and seeing case after case, report after report,” Berry said in an interview with WND and Radio America.
He said the growing number of stories is causing committed Christians to ask some uncomfortable questions.
“They’re starting to wonder, ‘Is this going to be a place where I’m welcomed? Is this going to be a place where I’m tolerated? Am I going to be required to keep my faith in the closet, so to speak?’ Or are they going to be allowed, which has always been the practice in our country up until this point, to freely exercise their religion in accordance with their sincerely held beliefs as the Constitution allows?” asked Berry, a military vet who made his own difficult decision to leave the armed forces as he saw religious liberties eroding.
“I was on active duty, and I began to see the writing on the wall,” he said. “I realized this is not the military I grew up in. This is not the military that I was raised to believe in and to support. It’s changing, and I realized it was time for me to make a move.”
And Berry is not the only one thinking long and hard about military service as the right career path.
“I’ve had a lot of mothers and fathers ask me. They say, ‘Mike, I served and my son or daughter wants to follow in my footsteps. But, as proud as I am of my military service, I’m not sure I want my son or daughter to be serving in our military anymore, given what’s going on,'” Berry said. “That’s very scary for our country if that kind of conversation and dialogue is now happening.”
Listen to the WND/Radio America interview with Michael Berry:
It’s difficult to get solid numbers on the impact religious freedom restrictions are having on recruiting and retention. Berry said the military almost always keep mum about drops in recruiting and retention and it never breaks down the reasons for the declines.
“It doesn’t behoove the military to report that they’re having problems with retention,” he said. “A group like a chaplain’s corps is not going to say, ‘We’re having a hard time attracting new chaplains’ because that doesn’t present them in a very favorable light.”
Liberty Institute is providing counsel for Navy Chaplain Wes Modder, an Assemblies of God minister who was removed from his position after answering questions from personnel who wanted to know what the Bible said about homosexuality and sex outside of marriage.
Another client is Army Ranger Chaplain Joseph Lawhorn, who was served with a letter of concern after a soldier complained about Lawhorn telling a suicide-prevention seminar that in his darkest moments he found comfort and solace in the Psalms of King David while also endorsing many secular resources.
Berry said the protest was baseless and can be seen as opportunistic by any objective analysis.
“[The soldier] didn’t even complain to Chaplain Lawhorn or the chain of command,” he said. “He went and complained to an outside media outlet, who then published the story. That’s what really precipitated that whole incident and led to Chaplain Lawhorn being punished.”
In the Washington Times article, Defense Department spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen is quoted as extolling religious freedom and how it continues to be cherished in the military.
“The Department of Defense respects, places a high value on and supports by policy the rights of members of the military services to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to have no religious beliefs,” said Christensen in the article.
“The mission of the chaplain corps is to provide care and the opportunity for service members, their families and other authorized personnel to exercise their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion,” he said.
But Berry said the impressive rhetoric is not matched by the facts.
“If what the DOD spokesperson is saying is true, then why on earth are chaplains like Chaplain Lawhorn and Chaplain Modder being threatened with career-ending punishment?” he asked. “Simply because they hold religious beliefs that are no longer popular? I would seriously question the DOD’s commitment to religious freedom is that’s allowed to stand without challenge.”
Lawhorn and Modder join other Liberty Institute clients whose careers are in limbo over their expression of personal beliefs. The list includes an Air Force senior master sergeant whose career is in doubt after he voiced support for traditional marriage. A commanding officer in the U.S. Army is fighting back after complaining that heterosexual soldiers are being treated unfairly compared to homosexuals.
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Berry said. “There are dozens of cases beyond what Liberty Institute handles dealing with religious hostility in this country. And like I said, within the military, it’s on the rise.”
While the Defense Department publicly professes great respect for religious freedom, anti-Christian activists are not hiding their agenda. The Washington Times article also features Military Religious Freedom Foundation President Michael Weinstein, who says chaplains who hold to biblical views on sexuality need to keep their mouths shut or find another line of work.
“You can continue to believe that internally, but if you have to act on that, the right thing to do is to get out of the U.S. military, because you have no right to tell a member of the military that they’re inferior because of the way they were born,” Weinstein is quoted as saying.
Berry finds that analysis legally ludicrous.
“Mr. Weinstein could not be more legally wrong,” he said. “The Constitution, federal law and military regulations all forcefully protect the right of service members to hold and to express their sincerely held religious beliefs. The military has a very high legal standard they have to meet if they’re going to try to censor or prohibit the free exercise of a service member’s sincerely held beliefs.”