A coalition of religious liberty advocates have penned a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper asking him to intervene in recent Army actions against the religious speech of chaplains during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The letter, made public on Thursday following the Army’s crackdown on chaplains who used social media and email to communicate with troops amid the pandemic, was signed by First Liberty Institute general counsel Michael Berry; the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty’s Ron Crews, a retired Air Force colonel; and the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition’s Jerry Boykin, a retired Army lieutenant general.
The Army’s actions followed complaints by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, led by former Air Force officer Mikey Weinstein, who has launched numerous attempts to stymie Christian influence in the Armed Forces.
“We write collectively,” the letter states, “to express our dismay at recent incidents within the U.S. Army that have resulted in unlawful religious discrimination against service members. … In each instance, the chaplains at issue did nothing illegal, immoral or unethical. To the contrary, they were merely carrying out their noble duties as chaplains. Second, the Army’s actions in each incident are unlawful.”
The letter notes that the First Amendment, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 2014 Defense Authorization Act and Defense Department guidelines protect the free religious exercise of service members.
The letter summarizes three instances where the Army asked chaplains to cease using social media or email to communicate religious messages with soldiers.
In Fort Drum, New York, a series of videos that included chaplains encouraging people to pray during the COVID-19 pandemic was removed by base officials after MRFF complained, as was a video message posted by a Christian chaplain at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. At Camp Humphreys, South Korea, MRFF asked that a chaplain who recommended a Christian book to troops via email “be officially, swiftly, aggressively, and visibly investigated and disciplined in punishment for his deplorable action.” The Army quickly complied, launching an investigation into the officer’s actions.
“Secretary Esper must make it clear that the religious liberty of our service men and women is a high priority, particularly during these trying times,” Berry said in a statement from First Liberty Institute, a national religious liberty law firm. “Service members have not been immune to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they remain at their posts, defending our freedom. It’s outrageous that these chaplains who are helping our service members, veterans and their families through this extraordinarily difficult time are being silenced by an anti-religion group and their bogus legal claims.”
Crews noted that the tradition of military chaplains has been an essential part of the military’s mission dating back to 1775, “making sure that our services members are able to worship or not worship according to the dictates of their conscience.”
Boykin, who commanded elite Army units during this career, said it is “absolutely critical” that chaplains be able to communicate effectively with troops. “The messages being criticized by the MRFF were completely legitimate and appropriate, and it would be inexcusable and unlawful to compel chaplain communications to be hidden away in some dark e-corner because hostile critics dislike the religious expression or the chaplains themselves.”
“We urge you to issue clear DOD guidance, consistent with Congress’ directive, that strongly protects religious freedom within DOD,” the letter to Esper stated. “Such guidance will slow the spread of misinformation, flawed legal arguments and religious discrimination.”
Above: U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains Maj. Gen. Doug Carver preaches a Thanksgiving message at the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq in Nov. 2008.
Photo: 615 collection/Alamy Stock Photo