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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of Editorial Services and Media Relations for LCMS Communications.
Read more about:
- Sterling v. United States
- Col. Madrid’s case
- “Protecting troops’ religious freedom: LCMS calls for clear DoD guidance“
Posted April 10, 2017