Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — Q: Has the Pentagon recently declared that sharing one’s faith is punishable by court-martial?
A: No. The Pentagon merely restated its long-held policy that military members can “share their faith (evangelize)” but “not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others … to one’s beliefs (proselytization).”
I have seen several postings on Facebook regarding a story in Breitbart News concerning the Pentagon court-martialing soldiers, including chaplains, who share their Christian or Jewish faith with others in the military. What’s the truth behind this story?
After the publication of an April 30 Fox News Radio report about religious proselytizing in the military, a number of conservative websites jumped to the erroneous conclusion that the Pentagon would court-martial members of the military for merely sharing their religious faith.
That article, from Fox News contributor Todd Starnes, quoted Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Defense Department spokesman, saying that “religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense,” and that “court martials (sic) and non-judicial punishments are decided on a case-by-case basis and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome in specific cases.”
Those quotes spawned some inaccurate claims from a variety of sources:
Breitbart.com reported that “President Barack Obama’s civilian appointees who lead the Pentagon are confirming that the military will make it a crime - possibly resulting in imprisonment - for those in uniform to share their faith.”
A post on Examiner.com followed with “the Obama administration has released a statement confirming the unthinkable: Any soldier who professes Christianity can now be court-martialed and may face imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge from the military … even if they are a military chaplain.”
The New American magazine ran a story claiming that the Pentagon had admitted “that U.S. military personnel could face court-martial for sharing their Christian faith with others.”
And Rep. Michele Bachmann posted an online pledge encouraging supporters to sign “if you agree that we cannot and should not prevent our military from practicing their own faith.”
Even Starnes wrote that the “Pentagon confirmed to Fox News that Christian evangelism is against regulations.”
But that isn’t what Christensen, the Pentagon spokesman, was saying either. He clarified his statement to the media on May 2, saying that soldiers can “share their faith (evangelize), but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others … (proselytization).”
Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, May 2: The U.S. Department of Defense has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution. The Department makes reasonable accommodations for all religions and celebrates the religious diversity of our service members.
Service members can share their faith (evangelize), but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs (proselytization).
If a service member harasses another member on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, or disability, then the commander takes action based on the gravity of the occurrence. Likewise, when religious harassment complaints are reported, commanders take action based on the gravity of the occurrence on a case by case basis.
The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions and respects (and supports by its policy) the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs.
The Department does not endorse any one religion or religious organization, and provides free access of religion for all members of the military services.
We work to ensure that all service members are free to exercise their Constitutional right to practice their religion in a manner that is respectful of other individuals’ rights to follow their own belief systems; and in ways that are conducive to good order and discipline; and that do not detract from accomplishing the military mission.
Furthermore, this isn’t a new policy by the Obama administration. As an example, U.S. Central Command, during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, issued orders that prohibited proselytizing.
General Order 1B, which was issued in March 2006 under Bush, prohibited “proselytizing of any religion, faith, or practice.” That order superseded General Order 1A, issued in December 2000, during Clinton’s presidency, which contained the exact same language. Both orders said that civilian violators may be subject to criminal prosecution or administration action and that military violators may be subject to penalties under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
And while it is possible that service members of any faith who violate military prohibitions against proselytizing could potentially face a court-martial, it is by no means a guarantee that they will. “Religious harassment complaints,” as Christensen noted, are handled on a case-by-case basis.
The Role of Mikey
This all became an issue because of an April 23 meeting between Pentagon officials and Mikey Weinstein, the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Two other members of the foundation’s boards, Larry Wilkerson, a former chief of staff to Colin Powell, and Joe Wilson, a former ambassador, also attended.
As Starnes wrote, the three men were there to encourage the Air Force to enforce its policies against religious proselytizing and suggest courts-martial for non-compliers. In her piece on the meeting for the Washington Post, Sally Quinn wrote that Weinstein called proselytizing in the armed services a “national security threat” akin to “spiritual rape” that should be “punished.”
The regulation in question — published on August 7, 2012, as part of Air Force Instruction 1-1 — says that Air Force “leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion.” It also says that “they must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion.”
Scott Martin, a senior lawyer for the Air Force’s administrative law agency, told the Air Force Times that there’s nothing new in the Air Force Instruction 1-1 booklet - which the article describes as “like a Cliffs Notes to all Air Force instructions and standards.” Martin said, “There is nothing different about this instruction from any other instruction out there.”
While the guide to “Air Force Standards” was published in 2012, it wasn’t distributed until May 2013. At the time they were originally published last year, Weinstein wrote that the regulations, unless they were properly enforced, “will be as useful as a ‘football bat’ in preventing an evangelical Fundamentalist coup d’etat within the U.S. Air Force.” And he still maintains that the Air Force has not backed up what it wrote.
And while some religious groups, such as the Family Research Council, have questioned why Pentagon officials would meet with Weinstein, it is not true that he was “hired” as an adviser to the Obama administration as some have suggested, including contributors for the online-based Christian Post.
Christensen said in an e-mail to us that “Mr. Weinstein requested, and was granted, a meeting at the Pentagon April 23, with the Air Force Judge Advocate General and others, to include the Deputy Chief of Chaplains, to express his concerns of religious issues in the military.” He added: “Mr. Weinstein is not part of any DoD Advisory Group or Committee, nor is he a consultant to the Defense Department regarding religious matters.”
— By Jesse DuBois, with D’Angelo Gore, for FactCheck.org
Editor’s note: Sources for this report are available at FactCheck.org.