WASHINGTON – A coalition of conservative groups, activists, and Congressmen gathered Tuesday to advocate for an amendment to defense legislation that would secure religious liberty for military personnel.
The group held a press conference in favor of a Religious Liberty Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Those present at the House Triangle who spoke included Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), who sponsored the amendment; Ron Crews, Ch. (Col.) USAR (Ret.), executive director for the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty; and Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jerry Boykin, executive vice president of the Family Research Council.
Tony Perkins, president of the FRC and one of the speakers, told The Christian Post that his organization's involvement in this effort stemmed from personal experience. "It goes back to when I was disinvited to speak at the Andrews Air Force Base because of my religious beliefs on marriage," said Perkins.
"Then we started getting reports as we spoke out on that, those incidents of intolerance, we began to get calls from other members of the military."
Perkins also told CP that he felt the amendment to the NDAA had the chance to be passed, even with the stated opposition from the White House.
"I think it has a very good chance," said Perkins, who added that the censorship of religious expression is "not speculation" and "not theoretical," but "very real."
Groups supporting the amendment who were present at the conference included the Center for Security Policy, Judicial Watch, and the Media Research Center.
FRC passed out a report titled "A Clear and Present Danger: The Threat to Religious Liberty in the Military," which contained a list of alleged incidents of religious discrimination largely aimed at Christians in the United States Armed Forces. These incidents included the Army removing a cross from a chapel in January, the Air Force removing "God" from a unit's logo, and the Walter Reed Medical Center banning Bibles in September 2011.
As the press conference was getting started, an individual passed out a two-sided handout that was meant to be a rebuttal to the FRC's "alarmism" on the topic. It drew from two online articles written in response to the FRC report, one by the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers and another by the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jerry Boykin, executive vice president of FRC, explained in a statement the purpose of the press conference and its support for the amendment to the NDAA. "We must do all we can to ensure that our servicemembers have the right to practice the very freedoms that they risk their lives to defend," said Boykin.
"We will encourage legislation to protect the religious liberty of military members, and we will do all we can to inform the American public about the attacks on religious liberty in the military."
Crews, himself an experienced chaplain and presently a chaplain endorser, told those at the House Triangle that the amendment will provide "real clear directions" on religious liberty matters in the military.
"We believe that those who are wearing the uniform, those who are putting their lives on the line to protect the religious liberties of all Americans should not themselves have to give up those religious liberties that they are willing to die for," said Crews.
While speakers at the conference voiced their support for the NDAA amendment and spoke of concern about religious freedom in the military, others were more critical. Simon Brown, communications associate for the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, recently argued that religious conservatives are "crying wolf" over the issue of religious liberty in the military.
In a May entry on Americans United's blog "Wall of Separation," Brown wrote that the claims of religious discrimination are exaggerated and based off of bad information. "The military may be looking to curb aggressive and inappropriate proselytizing, and rightfully so," wrote Brown.
"But at this moment, there is no evidence to suggest that simply expressing one's religious beliefs would lead to any sort of punishment."
If any religious bias exists, argued Dr. James Parco in a position paper for the secular group the Center for Inquiry, it is in favor of Fundamentalist Christianity. "In light of increasing religious fundamentalism within the ranks, coupled with a lack of social and political will to affect change, the cultural reticence to hold commanders accountable for inappropriate behavior remains an obstacle," wrote Parco.
Rep. Fleming's Religious Liberty Amendment has a companion amendment being sponsored by Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Both amendments have passed their respective Armed Services Committees.