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Supreme Court of the United States

Religious Freedom for the Armed Forces: A Constitutional Promise or Dangerous Threat?

October 17, 2017

Religious liberty scored a victory this month when the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 became law.  Congress included a new provision this year—Section 533—that protects the religious freedom of our brave men and women in uniform.  The Act instructs military commanders to “accommodate” the “conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs” of members of the armed forces and prohibits them, “in so far as practicable,” from using “such beliefs as the basis of any adverse personnel action.”

What is more, Section 533 protects the religious liberty of military chaplains by forbidding any “member of the Armed Forces” from forcing them “to perform any rite, ritual, or ceremony that is contrary to [their] conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs.”  And it bans retaliation against chaplains for exercising this opt-out right.

You might think that Congress’ efforts to safeguard the First Amendment rights of armed service members—who defend those freedoms in all manner of dangerous circumstances throughout the Earth—would be cause for general rejoicing.  After all, the Act’s passage by wide margins in the House and Senate is noteworthy in this era of political gridlock where politicians agree on so little.  But you would be wrong.

After the bill became law, the White House issued a statement strongly disapproving of Section 533 and its efforts to protect military members’ free exercise of religion.  It labeled these protections “unnecessary and ill-advised,” as “the military already appropriately protects the freedom of conscience of chaplains and service members,” warned against assuming that Section 533 “permit[s] or condone[s] discriminatory actions that compromise good order and discipline,” and made clear that “implementation of the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would be moving full speed ahead.

Instead of recognizing religious freedom as a universal good, the administration viewed it as a dangerous threat.  That concern has little to do with military discipline and much to do with the worry that conscience rights would hinder government efforts to require service members—including chaplains—to approve homosexual conduct in violation of their deeply-held religious beliefs.  For example, the Act protects military chaplains’ refusal to perform same-sex “marriage” ceremonies that violate fundamental tenets of their faith.  Alliance Defending Freedom is thankful that Congress took a different view, recognizing religious liberty as a basic human right.  And we stand in support of all those who believe our men and women in uniform are entitled to exercise the same right to religious freedom that so many have died to protect.