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Religious Expression or Religious Coercion: Commanders Caught in the Crossfire
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by Chaplain (Colonel) Jimmy M. Browning, U.S. Air Force, M.Div., D.Min, M.S., Deputy Commandant, U.S. Air Force Chaplains' Corps College

A monograph submitted to fulfill a research requirement for students at the Air War College in 2010. Published by the College, and republished by this journal with the permission of the author

The views expressed in this academic research paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense. In accordance with Air Force Instruction 51-303, it is not copyrighted, but is the property of the U.S. government.

The U.S. has a long history of supporting the religious needs of those serving in the military. Even before the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights existed, military leaders ensured those under their command had opportunity to exercise their religious convictions. George Washington successfully persuaded the Continental Congress on 29 July 1775 to appoint ministers as chaplains with a rank of captain and a salary of $20 per month. With this action, the American government officially established the military chaplaincy to support the free exercise of religion for those who served in the military.1 After the U.S. Constitution’s passage, Congress addressed the states’ concerns by introducing ten amendments.2 Being ratified on 15 December 1791, these ten articles became known as the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment simply states,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.3

Thus, the First Congress prioritized these freedoms of religion, speech, press, peaceful assembly, and to petition for redress of grievances as foundational and primary. Noteworthy, free exercise of religion not only guaranteed individual religious liberty but also protected the individual from abuses of a state established religion as experienced in 17th century Europe.4 In an ingenious way, these two religious guarantees complement each other. Fortunately, these religious freedoms also apply to those serving in the military.5

Congressional law reaffirmed the value of free exercise of religion for the military beyond the Continental Army. Congress created and the Courts preserved military chaplaincies to support commanders in their duties of protecting Constitutional free exercise of religion.  Department of Defense (DOD) Directive 1304.19 section 4.1 states commanders are responsible to provide for free exercise of religion. Partnering with religious denominational endorsers, DOD procures, trains, equips, and supports chaplains to ensure the First Amendment’s protection of free exercise of religion.6

Currently, commanders are seeking to balance the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion) and the Free Exercise Clause (or prohibiting the free exercise thereof) as DOD is battling frequent separation of church and state litigations. Commanders and chaplains are being accused of religious coercion; furthermore, an unabated tension is growing from a struggle between religious expression and religious coercion. This strain is affecting religious expression within the DOD as commanders are increasingly being ambushed in the media and litigation cross-fire.

Consequently, the United States Air Force (USAF) is under intense scrutiny to whether religious expression by commanders and chaplains is becoming more coercive or hampered.7 Within the past decade, groups are increasingly using media and litigation to challenge perceived religious coercion within the military. These groups take a view that Airmen should not be exposed to any unsolicited religious expressions thereby causing others to be deeply concerned about a loss of religious expression. What are the litigants’ issues and how legitimate are their concerns? After seeking to understand the background and to analyze these issues, this paper will recommend a USAF Chaplain Corps’ (hereafter, Chaplain Corps') strategic effort in support of First Amendment rights and will suggest guidelines for commanders.

Last Updated on Monday, 11 July 2011 11:30