US Department of Defense Strengthens Religious Liberty Protections for Service Members

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has released updated guidelines reinforcing religious liberty protections for those who serve in the nation’s Armed Forces.

“Pursuant to the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, service members have the right to observe the tenets of their religion or to observe no religion at all, as provided in this issuance,” the policy document, “Religious Liberty in the Military Services,” released earlier this month, reads.

It states that the military “will accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) which do not have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, or health and safety,” and “[a] service member’s expression of such beliefs may not, in so far as practicable, be used as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment.”

The guidelines also protect the religious convictions of chaplains, outlining that they may not be compelled to perform any ritual or ceremony that conflicts with their conscience and religious beliefs, nor may chaplains be punished for declining to participate.

The updates were made to reflect the requirements of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993, introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, and signed by then-President Bill Clinton, which prohibits the government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion” unless the law or regulation “is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that … interest.”

Read the document in full here.

Reaction to the guidance has been mixed, as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) opined that the updated policy will “obliterate the wall of separation between Church and State in our military.”

“MRFF will fight tooth and nail, day and night to stop this new, twisted and perverted version of DoD Instruction 1300.17,” said President Mikey Weinstein in a statement.

“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,” he remarked.

However, the Texas-based First Liberty Institute applauded the move, stating that it “clarifies what the Constitution and federal law already says and applies it to the DoD.”

“This new guidance is a great victory for America’s brave service members, for whom faith is an essential element of their life and duty,” said general counsel Mike Berry, who, according to the Military Times, served in the Marine Corps for seven years and is now a reservist. “Since the days of the Revolutionary War, religious freedom has been a force multiplier for our military.”

According to reports, on May 2, 1778, then-Commander in Chief George Washington instructed in a letter to the troops at Valley Forge:

“The commander in chief directs that divine service be performed every Sunday at 11 o’clock in each brigade which has a chaplain. Those brigades which have none will attend the places of worship nearest to them. It is expected that officers of all ranks will, by their attendance, set an example for their men. While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to laud the more distinguished character of Christian.”

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