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What the Military Shouldn't Preach

By Scott Poppleton
Monday, March 13, 2006

As the military wrestles with the proper place of religion in its ranks it is important to remember that the freedom of the Stars and Stripes applies to everyone -- not just those who believe what the majority of the United States believes.

I am no stranger to the military. In my 26 years in the Air Force, I listened to lunch prayers as an exchange cadet in Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy, and every month I read the chaplain's Bible quotations next to our commander's comments in the base paper. I have often asked myself as I listened to the "official prayers": What essential military need for good order and discipline does this religious program fulfill that outweighs my individual beliefs? What gives the U.S. military the right or the wisdom to preach in uniform?

Every fighter squadron bulletin board I have ever seen proudly states that it is illegal to discriminate based upon a person's race, gender or creed (religion). How then do we justify paying one of our commander's advisers to preach and write his or her religious views to all the troops?

Many insist that our military clergy have the right to their own freedom of religion in their positions. The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The First Amendment wasn't meant to allow a military officer or a government institution the free exercise of religion; on the contrary, it was designed to allow the individual to be free of the government -- military -- established religion. President James Madison thought that paying congressional chaplains out of the public treasury was "a palpable violation of equal rights as well as of constitutional principles." He went on to say, "Even military chaplains are a mistake, mixing as they do political, military and ecclesiastical authority."

The Air Force's interim revised religious guidelines, released Feb. 9, state: "Public prayer should not imply government endorsement of religion and should not usually be a part of routine official business." This is vague, at best. When an officer (i.e., chaplain) is in uniform, being paid to stand next to the commander and say a prayer at a required military formation, what part of that does not imply a full government endorsement?

When the commander gives the order to combat, is that optional, too? The policy that public prayer should not usually be a part of routine official business means the commander can force everyone only "on occasion" to listen to the chaplain's prayers.

We are well past the point where we need to reset the baseline of individual religious freedom in our military. The first step is to provide clear-cut regulatory guidance to our commanders and chaplains requiring them to keep their religious views to themselves other than in personal settings or at church. If a solemn occasion is appropriate at a military ceremony, implement a moment of silence, as we do at every public school in our nation.

The next essential step is to reform our dedicated and government-paid chaplain corps into a nondenominational and non-religious counseling service to aid our commanders in helping everyone under their leadership. Let the counselors help with the drug, alcohol and family problems that face our forces. Give civilian clergy the right to preach and teach in the chapel. In deployed locations, provide time and space for service members to conduct services.

We ask members of our military to give up many of their freedoms when they serve -- their personal freedom of religion should not be one of them.

The writer is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.

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