Lawmakers urge Pentagon to protect Christians in military from ‘anti-religion activists’

U.S. Army soldiers pray on September 11, 2011, during a protestant service at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. Ten years after the 9/11 attacks in the United States and after almost a decade of war in Afghanistan, American soldiers gathered for church services in prayer and solemn observance of the tragic day. | John Moore/Getty Images

Twenty members of Congress have signed onto a letter urging Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to protect Christian military service members who are under threat from a secular legal organization that's calling on the military to punish them for sharing their Christian faith. 

Led by Reps. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., they and 18 other Republican House members have signed a joint letter asking the Pentagon to protect the religious liberty of service members from the demands of an “anti-religion” group.

“We know that many in our Armed Forces are leaning on their faiths in this unprecedented hour,” the letter to Esper reads. 

“It is our hope that the Department of Defense and the several branches of our military will recognize the needs of our troops, follow federal law in protecting their religious liberties, and ensure that the ongoing pandemic is not exploited by nefarious organizations bent on removing faith from the U.S. military.” 

Specifically, the letter calls on Esper to protect the career of Col. Moon H. Kim, the command chaplain of U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in South Korea. Kim faced backlash after he shared John Piper’s book, Coronavirus and Christ, with fellow chaplains in an email.

The lawmakers are also calling for the protection of Air Force Lt. Col. David McGraw, who for eight weeks led worship services from the balcony of his military housing unit in Germany.  

Both Kim's and McGraw's actions are being condemned by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an organization that represents service members as it pushes for a strict separation of church and state within the military. 

In both cases, the organization is representing service members who took offense to McGraw's and Kim’s actions. MRFF has called for McGraw and Kim to be subject to a general court-martial for their actions of sharing their faith. 

“In recent weeks, you and Army commands across the globe have received multiple, unfounded complaints from an organization that has a reputation for preying on military chaplains,” the letter from the representatives says. “These complaints show that this organization and its leaders refuse to see the difference between evangelizing and proselytization and wish to ruin the careers of the hardworking men and women who serve as military chaplains.”

In addressing Kim’s situation, the letter states that the chaplain has made “a selfless effort to help his colleagues during this global health crisis” but is “now being subject to a review that could harm his career and reputation.”

“Given the content of his email and Federal law protecting religious speech, it is clear that Col. Kim should not and cannot be disciplined for his email,” the congress members warned Esper. 

Kim sent an email to 35 other chaplains on April 29 informing them that Piper’s book has helped him refocus his sacred calling during the pandemic. He shared a PDF file of the book in hopes it would help the other chaplains in their walks as well.

MRFF and the chaplains it represents took offense to a chapter of Piper's book that touched on whether the coronavirus was God’s judgment on sin. 

In addressing McGraw's situation, the lawmakers decried the fact that the MRFF was successful in pressuring leaders at U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart to force McGraw to apologize and move his Sunday balcony services to a different location. 

“The command at USAG Stuttgart unlawfully halted Lt. Col. McGraw’s services to appease an anti-faith organization,” the lawmakers argued. “Lt. Col. McGraw should be allowed to continue his Sunday morning preaching and hymn-singing immediately.” 

The lawmakers also came to the defense of Army chaplains at Fort Drum in New York who were the subjects of an MRFF complaint about videos they posted to command’s official Facebook page encouraging prayer during the coronavirus pandemic. 

After the MRFF complaint, their videos were quickly removed from the official Facebook page of the 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade.

“Given the limitations on gatherings due to the coronavirus, military chaplains are turning to digital opportunities to fulfill their obligations to their fellow servicemen and women,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.

“Additionally, shortly following a demand letter from MRFF on April 23, 2020, the command at U.S. Army Garrison Redstone Arsenal [in Alabama] removed a similar video from Maj. Christian Goza on its Facebook page’s Chaplain’s Corner.”

The lawmakers assert that MRFF's demands regarding the Facebook videos are "baseless"

“[E]ach commands’ decision to remove the videos, which all included protected religious expression, is contradictory to the Army’s April 24 guidance on social media use,” the letter continued.

“While it has not been reported that Cpt. Smith, Maj. Ingram, or Maj. Goza are being subject to any sort of review, it is critical that the Army ensure its commands across the country are not only adhering to the Army’s own guidance, but to Federal law.” 

The lawmakers disclosed that the Army Chaplain Corps released guidance on April 24 related to the use of social media to publicize religious or spiritual content. 

According to the letter, the Army Chaplain Corps April 24 guidance related to the use of social media detailed that the CHC has “broad latitude to use diverse means of social media to broadcast religious services, messages, and educational materials.” 

The guidance also explained that the Army is “generally prohibited from content-based restrictions on religious speech absent a ‘compelling government interest’ and only by use of the ‘least restrictive means.’” 

“Army policy does not prohibit ‘evangelizing’ or ‘proselytizing’ … so long as they are communicated in a manner avoiding [the]appearance of official Army/DoD endorsement or promotion of the particular religious viewpoint or group,” the Army guidance explained, according to the lawmakers.

MRFF argues that the actions of the service members do appear to be an Army endorsement or promotion of a particular religious viewpoint, namely evangelical Christianity. 

The lawmakers’ letter drew the response of MRFF advisory board member and retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson. 

In a statement, Lawrence argued that the lawmakers are ignoring the service member’s “responsibility to the secular law before whatever allegiance they might feel to fundamentalist Christian or other biblical, religious, or spiritual law.”

The lawmakers warned in their letter to Esper that the Department of Defense and the Army have been “far too quick to restrict the religious freedom of chaplains and the servicemembers they serve as a result of this group’s attacks.”

They stated that the department is obligated under federal law to highlight regulations that permit the faith-based actions taken by military chaplains in recent weeks.

“Far too often, commanders react in a knee-jerk fashion to loud complaints from vocal anti-religion activists only to have their decisions immediately overturned upon scrutiny, but often only after congressional intervention pressing the Services to adhere to their own regulations (let alone the Constitution),” the lawmakers conclude. “This must end.” 

The First Liberty Institute, a legal nonprofit that specializes in religious freedom cases, and the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition sent a joint letter to Esper on Thursday in support of the service members targeted by MRFF. First Liberty has argued that the First Amendment protects the service members' actions.

"We urge you to issue clear [Department of Defense] guidance, consistent with Congress’ directive, that strongly protects religious freedom within DOD," the joint letter to Esper reads. "Such guidance will slow the spread of misinformation, flawed legal arguments, and religious discrimination."

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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