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The Religious Rights of Those in Uniform - Military Roles, Responsibilities and Rights
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Article Index
The Religious Rights of Those in Uniform
Military Roles, Responsibilities and Rights
Examples of Permissible Religious Exercise
Examples of Impermissible Religious Conduct
Endnotes 1 thru 50
Endnotes 51 thru 110
Endnotes 111 thru 170
All Pages

Military Roles, Rights and Responsibilities

Free Exercise of Religion Is Essential for Developing and Strengthening the Warrior Ethos

Gen George S. Patton aptly noted the following: “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and the man who leads that gains the victory” (emphasis added).53 Every professional organization has a purpose, its raison d’être. To fulfill that purpose, an organization must establish a specific culture to which its individual members subscribe and in which they flourish.54 The military is the only institution in civilized society whose ultimate purpose is “to kill people and break things.”55 This organizational purpose is unique among professions; not surprisingly, the military has therefore developed a culture that is also unique. This culture, the very “spirit” embodied by military service members, referred to in General Patton’s quotation above, has been dubbed the “warrior ethos.”

The warrior ethos comprises beliefs and attitudes that have been passed down through generations of professional war fighters from time immemorial.56 These beliefs and attitudes can generally be broken into three disciplines: physical, mental, and moral.57 Physical prowess has long been a necessary trait of a successful warrior. Whether for a Spartan warrior 2,400 years ago58 or a current member of the US armed services, the rigors of warfare demand that the military professional subscribe to an intense physical regimen.59 Similarly, professional warriors have cultivated and mastered a specific mental discipline required by the profession of arms. This discipline includes proficiency in one’s military specialty60 as well as a mental toughness that is characterized by “[the ability] to sustain the will to win when the situation looks hopeless and shows no indication of getting better.”61 Lastly, professional war fighters exhibit a certain moral discipline, an “unrelenting and consistent determination to do what is right.”62 War brings difficult choices. Warriors must stand firm, despite temptation to the contrary, in their moral conviction to “win with honor” (emphasis added).63

There are innumerable examples that define the physical, mental, and moral disciplines of the warrior ethos; yet they may be accurately summarized by the following excerpt from the Soldier’s Creed: “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.”64 Moral discipline is of utmost importance for the professional warrior— and to the nation. It is critical that one understand the importance of this discipline. Only then can one discern how the conviction to win with honor is developed and, finally, how it is maintained.65

What differentiates a murderer from a professional warrior? Both take the life of another human being. Why they kill differentiates the one from the other. The murderer may kill on a whim or after detailed planning but usually for his own purposes, while the warrior’s killings are constrained by purposes of state and are limited to certain defined instances on the battlefield. What defines the warrior’s constraints is moral discipline.66 Without such discipline, that which distinguishes the warrior from the murderer becomes negligible. Moral discipline (1) protects the general population from the warrior’s killing and (2) guards the warrior from the psychological damage inherent in being a murderer.67 Moral discipline is, in essence, the “glue” that holds the warrior ethos together and allows the individual warrior to commit otherwise objectionable acts with honor and integrity.

How then is moral discipline developed and maintained? While some may despise or belittle the thought, for many, there is an important underlying spiritual aspect to the moral discipline of the warrior ethos. This is not to say that a prerequisite for becoming a great warrior is to be religious; there have been, and undoubtedly still are, great professional military men and women who are nonreligious. Nevertheless, it is incontrovertible that many—indeed, most68—military service members derive their moral beliefs of right and wrong from personal religious beliefs and values.69 Hence, to successfully develop and maintain the moral discipline of the warrior ethos within its organizational structure, the military must provide religious care and encourage religious free exercise amongst its members. To do otherwise places at risk the development of those qualities that define and motivate the warrior ethos in the US armed forces.

Leaders of military units must understand that, for the vast majority of those serving within their various commands, the moral discipline of the warrior ethos is inexorably linked with their religious faith.70 Thus, to create and maintain an effective fighting force, leaders must make provision for the spiritual well-being of their subordinates.71 The US military has recently taken great care to rekindle a warrior ethos that was, at one time, thought to be endangered.72 To neglect (or, worse yet, to suppress) the religious aspect of moral discipline would eviscerate the warrior ethos and would significantly degrade the military culture necessary for winning on the battlefield.73

Role and Responsibility of Military Commanders and Leaders at All Levels in Ensuring Free Exercise Rights

As noted above, life in the military is markedly different from life as a civilian. Good order and discipline are required in the military to ensure that our armed forces will be able to carry out their vital duty to defend the United States whenever called upon to do so. Critical to ensuring the readiness of our armed forces are the various leaders assigned at all levels of command within each of the armed services. The US military has produced countless military commanders and other leaders who lead by example and model servant leadership for their subordinates. Such leaders take an active interest in their subordinates and their welfare. They demand high standards in training—both of themselves and of the men and women they lead. Further, such leaders give freely of themselves and of their time to mentor their subordinates so that they are properly prepared for the rigors of military life, including, when required, the rigors of combat when life and death decisions demand utmost courage and integrity. Given its level of responsibility, a commander’s life is not an easy life. In effect, commanders at every level are responsible for al that their commands do and fail to do; they are responsible for developing and honing the warrior ethos in their commands.

Among the many responsibilities that fall on commanders’ shoulders is the responsibility for the moral and spiritual welfare of their subordinates and their family members.74 Irrespective of the individual commander’s personal religious faith (or lack thereof), he75 is nonetheless responsible for ensuring that his subordinates’ moral and spiritual needs (as well as those of the subordinates’ families) are identified and met. Hence, it is the commander’s responsibility to develop the moral/religious program for his command. It is not (as is often thought) the military chaplain’s responsibility, although the chaplain, as a special staff officer, exists in part to advise and assist the commander in developing and carrying out the commander’s program. Moreover, as with every other command responsibility and command program, the commander is responsible to periodically—and personally—check to ensure that his religious program is being properly executed and is achieving the results intended. Failure to do so constitutes dereliction of duty and is a betrayal of the high trust we place in commanders.

Good commanders are team builders. They lead by example.76 They model caring servant leadership. They spend time and share hardships with their subordinates.77 They are present where the weather is foulest and the training is toughest. They are there at the toughest times to see that the needs of the men and women in their charge are being adequately met. They are there to ensure that ongoing training meets required standards.78 They are there to make on-the spot corrections, where needed, and to give individual and collective praise, where appropriate. They speak to—and with—their subordinates. They listen to what their subordinates have to say, treat them with respect, and answer their questions.79 Good commanders share the good times—and the bad times— with the men and women they command. By spending time and sharing hardships with their subordinates, good commanders establish mutual trust and confidence.80 Moreover, American commanders—beginning with Gen George Washington—have recognized that proper moral and spiritual health is a force multiplier on the battlefield, that it enables and emboldens men and women to perform beyond their perceived individual limitations to achieve superior, collective results.81 And successes in wartime begin with training in peacetime. Thus, effectively caring about moral and spiritual health in peacetime contributes to victory and success in wartime—when it really counts.82

Role of Military Chaplains in Furthering Free Exercise

Military chaplains are unique members of the US armed forces. By law, they are commissioned officers without command.83 As such, the chaplain has no command authority, meaning that the chaplain lacks lawful authority “to order a subordinate unit to execute directives or orders.”84 Each chaplain is a member of the clergy of a specific faith group and serves in uniform to represent and propagate the specific teachings of that faith group.85 Because Christianity, as represented in its myriad forms, is the most widely practiced religion in the United States,86 it is also the religion with the most adherents within the US armed forces. Hence, to meet the spiritual needs of the US armed forces, the majority of US military chaplains represent some denominational variant of the Christian faith. Yet because beliefs and practices even among Christian groups and denominations differ widely,87 it is not fully accurate to speak of “Christianity” per se as the largest faith group represented within the US armed forces. Instead, one should note the relative sizes of the various Christian denominational groups for purposes of comparison—especially when charging that the military is favoring one faith group over another.88

Military chaplains wear multiple hats. They serve, first and foremost, to meet the free exercise needs of the men and women in the US armed services.89 This has been true from the earliest days of our national history and predates the founding of the republic. Consequently, military chaplains are selected precisely because they represent specific faith groups and specific theological beliefs. Each military chaplain is commissioned to meet the free exercise needs of adherents of his specific faith group. As members of the clergy, military chaplains are not “fungible” assets. Jewish chaplains are not capable of ministering the rites of the Catholic faith to Catholic service members; Methodist chaplains are not capable of ministering the rites of the Islamic faith to Muslim service members; Buddhist chaplains are not capable of ministering the rites of the Baptist faith to Baptist service members; and so on. Nor may they be compelled to do so.90

In their free exercise role, military chaplains also wear a second hat. In addition to assisting adherents of their own faith group, military chaplains exist to support service members of other faiths, or no faith, in obtaining the spiritual and/or other assistance that they seek. In that context, military chaplains must be familiar with the beliefs and needs of other faith groups and must do whatever they can to assist the service member in contacting a chaplain or civilian clergyman of that service member’s faith when faith-specific needs require it.91

Military chaplains, as commissioned officers in their respective service, wear a third hat as well. They fulfill a non-faith-specific role. In addition to their faith group responsibilities, military chaplains are special staff officers who assist their respective commanders in developing and carrying out the commanders’ moral/ religious programs.92 They are also trained in the areas of counseling and are often relied upon by their commanders to be a nonthreatening resource to whom service members can turn when they need advice, are in trouble, have emergencies, and so forth.93

Because the government commissions military chaplains due to their membership in specific faith groups (i.e., to meet the free exercise needs of the men and women in uniform), and because it is constitutionally inappropriate for the government to delve into the details of religious belief and clergy qualification within a specific faith group (i.e., to avoid violating the establishment clause by entangling the government in religious matters), DOD relies on civilian ecclesiastical endorsing agencies to ensure that chaplains seeking to serve in the armed forces meet the religious standards required by their respective faith groups.94 Were a chaplain to lose his denominational endorsement, he would be separated from the military.95 Hence, denominational affiliation is the irreducible essence of membership in the chaplaincy of the US armed forces, and as such, military chaplains are intentionally hired, and hence expected, to represent a specific denominational view within the military. Military chaplains are, in the final analysis, members of the clergy of their specific faith groups who conduct their ministries in uniform.

Finally, neither being paid a salary by the military nor wearing a uniform while performing chaplain duties converts a chaplain’s religious message into government speech which must be squelched to avoid violating the establishment clause. As the court in Rigdon v. Perry96 aptly noted, “while military chaplains may be employed by the military to perform religious duties, it does not follow that every word they utter bears the imprimatur of official military authority; if anything, the content of their services and counseling bears the imprimatur of the religious ministries to which they belong.”97 From that, the Rigdon court concluded that there was “no need for heavy-handed censorship, and any attempt to impinge on the [chaplain’s] constitutional and legal rights [wa]s not acceptable.”98

Rights of Individual Service Members to Exercise Their Faith

When discussing an individual service member’s right to free exercise of religion, it must be clearly understood that “free exercise of religion” means what it says—free exercise. Free exercise may not legitimately be limited to what some government official or civilian advocacy group or attorney may think it should mean—or is willing to tolerate.99 Further, the right to free exercise of religion applies to all members of the armed services—including general or flag officers, commanders, and chaplains—because the First Amendment guarantees the right to free exercise to every American, irrespective of that person’s station in life.

Subject to the demands of military service100 and the need to maintain good order and discipline,101 free exercise of religion for service members includes, but is not necessarily limited to, the following: the right to believe or not believe; the right to engage in corporate or individual worship; the right to study religious texts, both individually and with others; the right to fellowship with members of the same faith; the right to discuss and share basic truths of one’s faith, both with fellow adherents of that faith and with nonadherents as well; the right to teach one’s faith as truth; the right to observe religious holidays, feasts, ceremonies, and so forth; the right to attend religious retreats and conferences; the right to invite others to participate in a religious activity associated with one’s faith, such as a Bible study, a bar mitzvah, or a holiday celebration (like a Seder meal or a Christmas party or an Iftar celebration); the right to pass on one’s faith to one’s own children and other children placed for that purpose in one’s care (such as in Sabbath school, Sunday school, catechism classes, or youth groups like Young Life or Club Beyond); and the right to participate in activities sponsored by local religious groups or parachurch groups (like the Knights of Columbus, the B’nai B’rith, the Navigators, or the Officers’ Christian Fellowship).

For certain groups and individuals, sharing their faith with others is a religious command. To officially proscribe the sharing of a chaplain’s (or other service member’s) faith may itself run afoul of the establishment clause in that government officials sit in judgment of what constitutes acceptable religious belief and activities and what does not. This is not to say that a religious activity might not, under some circumstances, upset good order and discipline, just as a secular activity may do so. When that occurs in either case, of course, commanders may intervene, but commanders must be careful not to limit free exercise merely because some individual or group does not appreciate or want to be bothered by the message shared.102 Persons can be offended by both religious and secular sentiments.103 Tolerance must be a two-way street. Just as adherents of the majority religious faith must understand and respect the rights of those of minority faiths, or no faith, so too must those of minority faiths and of no faith understand and respect the rights of those professing the majority faith.

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 July 2011 19:13