Synod, other advocates speak for religious liberty in secularized military

U.S. Air Force Col. Michael Madrid stands next to a vintage aircraft display outside Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. First Liberty Institute represents Madrid on the basis he was unlawfully punished because of his religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality. (Courtesy of First Liberty Institute)

By Roger Drinnon

The LCMS and certain other groups are speaking up for the rights of U.S. service members to live faithfully amid continued U.S. Defense Department infringements on religious freedom in the military.

Despite the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) claims of accommodating religious expression in the military, a heavily secularized military culture, stemming from ongoing atheist activism and LGBT advocacy, seems to permeate each branch of military service. This has led to an environment where restrictions and even punitive actions reportedly are being imposed on chaplains, commanders and lower ranks who seek to serve without compromising their religious faith.  

Former U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling was court-martialed and discharged for refusing to remove a Bible-themed passage from her workspace based on Is. 54:17, which read, “No weapons formed against me shall prosper.” (Wynona Benson Photography/Courtesy of First Liberty Institute)

Court-martialed for Bible verse?

For example, at least a dozen parties have joined an amicus brief for the U.S. Supreme Court, including the Synod and the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, as the high court now considers taking the case of Sterling v. United States.

According to a First Liberty Institute press release, the Sterling case began when U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling was court-martialed for refusing to remove a Bible-themed passage from her workspace based on Is. 54:17, which read, “No weapons formed against me shall prosper.” Sterling was given a bad-conduct discharge and reduced to the military’s lowest rank prior to the discharge.

First Liberty Institute, along with former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement of Kirkland and Ellis LLP, represent Sterling in her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Voices in the military, in the Church, in religious minorities and from across the nation are uniting to ask the Supreme Court to protect religious freedom,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute. “We hope the Supreme Court will heed their requests and accept this historic religious freedom-case.”

Colonel under fire for sexuality, marriage beliefs

According to another First Liberty Institute press release, its attorneys now represent U.S. Air Force Col. Michael Madrid on the basis he was unlawfully punished because of his religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality.

In 2014, an openly gay airman was court-martialed and found guilty of serious misconduct, purportedly involving drugs and a firearm. During the court-martial process, the airman, who worked with Madrid, accused Madrid of making derogatory comments about homosexuality. As a Christian, Madrid holds the traditional belief that marriage is the sacred union of one man and one woman.

According to First Liberty’s case summary, Madrid was cleared of the airman’s allegations but later was placed under a new commander who purportedly decided Madrid was guilty of making the derogatory comments. The new commander placed a Letter of Admonishment (LOA) in Madrid’s permanent record. In the Air Force, an LOA placed in an officer’s record negatively impacts that officer’s promotions. Madrid likely will not be promoted to the general officer ranks unless he is exonerated.

“I feel like the full power of the Air Force is coming down on me because of my faith,” said Madrid. “Now, after more than a quarter century of service to this nation, I feel like I constantly have to look over my shoulder. It’s incredibly intimidating.”

“We are aware of Col. Michael Madrid’s situation and his retention of legal representation,” said an Air Force spokesman from Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs. “Maj. Gen. Mark Brown, vice-commander of Air Education and Training Command, received a letter on March 29, 2017, from Col. Madrid’s legal representation. We are now working through the process of verifying the facts around Colonel Madrid’s protestations.”

In November 2014, the Air Force touted its revised Air Force Instruction (AFI) 1-1, Air Force Standards, to “clarify guidance on Airmen’s religious rights and commanders’ authority and responsibility to protect those rights” amid reported infringements on those rights that year and some years earlier.

When asked by Reporter about the impact of the punitive actions against Madrid, the Air Force spokesman cited outdated guidance from an earlier version of AFI 1-1.

“At First Liberty Institute, we’ve seen multiple cases in which military officials have refused to tolerate service members’ traditional religious beliefs,” said Mike Berry, First Liberty director of Military Affairs. “Col. Madrid doesn’t hide the fact that he is a devout Christian. We are concerned that [Madrid’s commander] judged and punished Madrid — a decorated Air Force officer — because he became aware of Col. Madrid’s traditional religious views. If so, that not only harms the military, but it is illegal.” 

LGBT advocacy a factor

Last year, the Synod sent a request to then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to ensure specific protections for chaplains, service members, medical personnel, DoD civilians and other DoD-affiliated employees. The request came in response to the DoD’s mandated LGBT Pride Month and its revised policies for transgender service members, which, among other things, advocates in-service gender transitions while serving in the military.

The Synod’s request called for specific protections for expressing personal religious beliefs to be codified in DoD and service-specific guidance, as service members continued experiencing restrictions on living out their faith in their military vocations.

DoD officials responded with assurances that religious freedom is protected in the military despite recent policy changes. However, the Defense Department’s response went on to say:

“We continue to make every effort to ensure that the DoD is a model of equal opportunity for all and to remove all barriers to service to allow qualified personnel to compete for the opportunity to serve. Military chaplains in particular, upon commissioning, agree to serve in a pluralistic environment and are expected to treat everyone with dignity and respect, irrespective of differences in religious belief.”

Faith on the front lines

The Synod’s Ministry to the Armed Forces (MAF), part of the LCMS Office of International Mission, continues to advocate for the rights of military members to live out their faith in their vocation, especially as the nation approaches three decades of constant armed conflict around the globe.

“We need to address how recent DoD policy changes continue to impact the rights of military personnel to live consistently with their faith while in uniform — that faith doesn’t suddenly disappear when they put the uniform on,” said Chaplain (U.S. Navy Capt. Ret.) Craig Muehler, MAF director.

Last year, the Synod in convention also adopted Resolution 2-04, which reaffirms LCMS military chaplains’ rights of free exercise of religion in the face of LGBT inclusion in the armed forces, and Resolution 14-01 to encourage intentional leadership in matters of religious freedom.

“No American, especially those who wear the uniform, should be denied their religious freedom or be forced to go against their conscience,” said Muehler. “The men and women in uniform serving on the front lines to defend our nation should not be penalized for exercising the same freedoms they are fighting to protect.”

Roger Drinnon (roger.drinnon@lcms.org) is director of Editorial Services and Media Relations for LCMS Communications.

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Posted April 10, 2017

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6 Responses to Synod, other advocates speak for religious liberty in secularized military

  1. Frederick Germann April 14, 2017 at 8:56 pm #

    In lieu of saying “traditional religious beliefs”, the phrase “acknowledgement of God’s will” should be used. This emphasizes the separation that occurs between man and God brought on by practicing that form of secularism that seeks to obliterate God’s will.

  2. Tim Z. April 15, 2017 at 4:18 am #

    As a USAF vet and life-long LCMS Member, this continuum of the abolishment of DOMA and a legacy of C-in-C Clinton’s “Don’t ask, dont’ tell” policy, evokes a visceral response in me. I am angered and ashamed at the US Govt’s cowardly response to the 0.01% of Service Members, and their blatant disregard for the US Constitutional Rights of the vast majority. The Military is the last place we need “social experimentation”. Worse, The DoD has lost it’ Moral Compass, and that WILL have a disasturus effect on the overall Warior Spirit, should the USA become involved in a major armed, Boots-on-the-ground, “Death From Above” conflict. It these uncertain times, I find it appropriate to reread Martin Luther’s 1521 Treatise ‘Can Solders to be Saved?’

    • Carl Vehse April 17, 2017 at 12:21 pm #

      Martin Luther’s tract, Ob Kriegsleute auch in einem seligen Stande sein können (“Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved”) was published in October,1526, following a request in 1525 from Assa von Kram, a counselor of Duke Ernst of Braunschweig-Lüneberg and a professional soldier.

  3. Stavros April 21, 2017 at 6:56 am #

    We will hear from Mr. Drinnon precisely the opposite response when an LCMS member of the service hears criticism of his eating meat from his Hindu commanding officer. Like it or not, we now live in a multi-religious society which is reflected in our military. We are no longer all Protestants with only a small minority of Jews or Catholics intermingled and diffidently tolerated. The only rational response to this new diversity is to limit religious speech and writing in the military workplace and on the duty station to utterly non-controversial topics. Speech and writing which divides, stridently advocates or criticizes practitioners of other persuasions should be seen as damaging to the morale and effectiveness of the services. We need to work to keep contentious religious comments to the privacy of one’s sectarian chapels or living rooms and leave the military duty stations free of religious strife and argument.

    • LCMS Church Information Center April 21, 2017 at 8:54 am #

      From Mr. Roger Drinnon: As a retired Air Force veteran having participated in several deployments around the world over the years, I can attest to the importance of faith while serving in the military, as a great percentage of our nation’s troops still believe in God. Your comment that people should “keep contentious religious comments to the privacy of one’s sectarian chapels or living rooms” and not be allowed to live out their faith freely in their vocations represents a disturbing mindset at the heart of the religious liberty debate in America today. It’s absurd to deny the basic constitutional right of free exercise to those who have sworn to support and defend the U.S. Constitution and who risk their lives each day doing so.

  4. Stavros April 21, 2017 at 5:53 pm #

    I support those who “live out their faith freely in their vocations” but I stop at the line represented by contentious speech and behaviors inimical to order, morale, and unit effectiveness. It is acceptable for a serviceman to hold, for example, that homosexuality is an objective disorder and a moral impediment. But once the Department of Defense has allowed homosexuals to become fellow soldiers, that serviceman’s right to “live [his] faith freely” stops at any derogatory or demeaning remarks about fellow soldiers’ sexual orientation. People have a right to religious liberty but no right, in the context of the military, to destroy unit effectiveness through religiously-motivated remarks about fellow service members. I have seen this dysfunction in action at, among other places, the Air Force Academy where evangelical chaplains and parachurch members of groups such as the Navigators have criticized Lutheran and Catholic cadets for their asserted failure to “accept Jesus in their hearts”. As a school board member, I have had to deal with aggressive religious groups demeaning other students including our own LCMS children. That’s why I assert that while religious liberty is an absolute, religious behavior in the workplace or secular sphere may be sharply and legitimately contained.

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