One of the Greatest Threats to Religious Liberty Exists Within Our Own Military

The branches of the United States military comprise members of myriad faiths and religious traditions. As such, they face the interesting challenge of preserving religious freedom within their institutions while protecting religious liberty for all. This week, Cornerstone asks: What challenges do religious military personnel face in practicing their faith? What policies ensure religious freedom within the military? Are these policies effective? Can they be improved? Why is religious freedom in the military important?

By: Ron Crews

It is almost the height of irony that the American military is experiencing serious religious disharmony. The nation founded on the promise of religious tolerance now boasts a military where devout service members are increasingly forced to choose between hiding their religious beliefs and leaving the service. Serving as an openly faithful, devout person is proving to be difficult, if not impossible. 

Take the case of Monifa Sterling, a Marine currently awaiting word on the appeal of her court-martial. She had printed out small strips of paper with her favorite scripture paraphrased on it: “No weapon formed against me shall prosper” (Isaiah 54:17). She posted them at her Camp Lejeune work station in three places (she said it was one for each part of the Holy Trinity) for daily inspiration and devotion. 

Though other Marines had similarly decorated their workspaces with personal effects, only Monifa was asked by her superior to remove her papers. When Monifa asserted that she had the freedom under the First Amendment to express herself in that way, her superior took them down. When Monifa reposted her papers, she found herself charged with criminal offenses and brought before a panel for trial by court-martial. 

Monifa was found guilty and given a bad-conduct discharge. She will never get the veterans benefits she earned, and her discharge will be a “Scarlet Letter” on her record for life. She lost her appeal to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Appeals. In fact, that court went so far as to find that posting those scripture verses was not an exercise of religion. She now awaits word on her appeal to the highest military court, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. 

In addition, take the case of Lt. Cmdr. Wes Modder, a Navy chaplain separated from his service and his flock after a complaint about how he ministered in private counseling on homosexuality and premarital sex. His ministry was wholly consistent with the positions of his endorsing church, the Assembly of God. 

Chaplain Modder was banned from even attending the memorial service on base for one of his fallen flock. It was only recently and after several months that the Navy reversed course and admitted that no evidence exists that this decorated officer had done anything resembling the “gross negligence or complete disregard for duty” of which he was accused. Had the Navy persisted, Chaplain Modder would have had a similar “Scarlet Letter” on his record as Monifa Sterling currently has on hers. 

There is also the case of Senior Master Sgt. Larry Gallo, who wrote a piece for the Air Force Reserve Command website about the charitable work that he and his family do over Christmas. Public Affairs thought it was an inspirational story. The command disagreed. 

Larry had written about how his family traveled to Mexico and Guatemala over the Christmas holidays to provide medical care to more than 720 patients in three villages. But because he did this through an organization called T.I.M.E. for Christ Medical Ministries, his article was censored. 

He did not proselytize in his writing. The mere mention of his faith was enough to elicit censorship from the military command. Col. Florencio Marquinez, medical group commander for the 180th Fighter Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard, met with similar censorship when he wrote “A Spiritual Journey as a Commander” for his newsletter—even as an analogous piece by an atheist airman was allowed to stand untouched. 

Then there is the Air Force Academy cadet who wrote his favorite scripture on his door’s whiteboard, only to have it removed, and the airmen at Robins Air Base in Georgia who were gagged from greeting people with the words, “Have a blessed day.” Unfortunately, the additional anecdotes about service members, particularly Christian service members, disciplined for exercising their religious liberty are too many to list here. 

We at Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty hear about these cases nearly every day. They have become more numerous—and more bitter. The Pentagon appears to be egged on by a very organized and well-funded network of outside groups that believe that no room exists in the military for religious liberty. 

This bold assertion has no basis in history. Since George Washington first led our military onto the battlefields of the Revolutionary War, service to God and to country have been simultaneously possible and encouraged. Chaplains were considered so indispensable to a working military that they were even drafted during the Civil War. The assault on the religious liberty of our service members is a new phenomenon.

Nor is there any basis in law for the demand that service members leave their religious liberty at the recruiting door. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), one of the key federal statutes guaranteeing religious liberty for all Americans, has always been viewed by the courts as applying to the armed services. Indeed, the US Department of Defense removed any doubt by expressly incorporating RFRA into its regulations effective January 2010.

Congress has repeatedly admonished the Pentagon in recent years that the religious liberty rights of service members must be respected; yet, the reality of life in the armed services tells a very different story. It has become hostile territory for service members, particularly those of Christian faith, who wish to freely exercise their First Amendment right to religious liberty—the very First Amendment they fight to defend, for which they are willing to die.

Dr. Ron Crews is a retired US military chaplain (COL). He currently holds the position of executive director for the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, a group of chaplain advocates who support over 2,700 military chaplains.

This piece was originally authored on October 5, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.