Friday, May 3, 2013

Free Exercise of Religion

I try not to be alarmist (even though I often feel alarmed at news in our country and our world). But I am alarmed today at stories from the last couple of days concerning the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
Just to clarify, yet again, we do not get our rights from the Constitution; we get our natural human rights from God. For the sake of preventing tyrannical usurpation of those rights by government, we have several of them plainly expressed in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which became part of the Constitution before it was ratified.
One of my most frequently read posts is the Two Hundredth Post, from January 13, 2012. It’s a simple explanation of the meaning of the religious freedom clause. I suggest to our administration that they read it for a basic understanding. (The President’s teaching of Constitutional Law apparently failed to bring him to the level of basic comprehension.)
Government can make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. End of subject. Self-evident. Except to the opposition to truth and freedom that is trying to tyrannize the rest of us, using some sort of twisted logic about how rude it is of believers to show any signs of religious belief around others.
Specifically today I’m concerned about the military. The Pentagon came out with a policy concerning religious expression: "Religious proselytization is not permitted within the Department of Defense...Court martials and non-judicial punishments are decided on a case-by-case basis...”
The question here is what is meant by “proselytization,” so an Air Force spokesman, following pressure about the question, came out with an additional statement: “When on duty or in an official capacity, Air Force members are free to express their personal religious beliefs as long as it does not make others uncomfortable.”
Wait, the First Amendment doesn’t say, “The government shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion except when a person can be found to claim discomfort from being exposed to that free exercise of religion.” That exception isn’t there. Coercing someone to be baptized into a particular faith would be against the free exercise clause—but I believe there is no such case on record anywhere in the history of the US Military. So they must mean something else.
Who decides what crosses the line of discomfort? The intolerant non-religious person? Assurances aren’t very reassuring following these policy implementations:
·         Reference to God was stripped from the Rapid Response motto.
·         Bibles were removed from supplies at the Air Force Inn.
·         Air Force cadets were prevented from promoting charities for needy children.
·         A course on Just War Theory, in use for 20+ years, was removed from available training because it included a few Bible verses.
·         A Christian speaker was disinvited from a speaking engagement at an Air Force Prayer Breakfast.
·         An Air Force officer was commanded to remove a Bible from his desk.
We’re supposed to trust them to be sensible about the definitions of such words as “proselytize,” and “uncomfortable”? And if some official decides the arbitrary line has been crossed, the military person is subject to court martial—that means a criminal record, dishonorable discharge, and possible prison sentence.
Imagine what this means to chaplains. A young man comes to the chaplain prior to going out on a dangerous mission, asking questions about life and death and God. The chaplain expresses his personal view that God is eternal, there is life after death, and quotes John15:13: “Greater love hath no man that this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” It is intended to comfort as well as honor the soldier going out bravely to do his duty.
But it’s a New Testament verse, and therefore related to the wide range of Christian sects, but while still applicable to other religions, might not resonate with a non-Christian. What if a non-Christian young man follows such a conversation with an expression of disappointment to an officer: “I didn’t really get the comfort I wanted; the chaplain just gave me the usual stuff from his own Christian point of view.”
That could be interpreted by someone as the chaplain pushing his personal religious belief, even though he was just doing his job of offering comfort as best he knew how. The accusation of disapproval or discomfort is enough to put the chaplain at risk. Under these circumstances, this threat essentially does away with the position of chaplaincy in the military—where life and death questions, as well as the stress of being away from home and family, and facing severe conditions are part of the soldier's job and can’t be ignored.
Can anyone read the First Amendment and believe it says, “There should be no chaplains in the military, because their religious views might make an unbeliever uncomfortable”?
And what about conversations between fellow soldiers? Suppose one soldier asks a buddy what his plans are for Sunday. His friend answers, “I’m going to my church services. You should come; you might enjoy it.” Harmless enough. It’s simply an answer to a direct question along with a friendly invitation. But what if the first guy was hoping for companionship for some very non-religious activity, and he decides it makes him uncomfortable that his friend’s behavior is such a stark contrast?
If the standard is “someone feels uncomfortable,” that means all religious people are on notice to hide their religious beliefs and expression.
Can anyone read the First Amendment and believe it says, “There should be no visible, verbal, or other signs of religious belief among members of the military, because that might make an unbeliever uncomfortable”?
It would be nice if we could trust government officials to use common sense regarding our rights to the free exercise of religion. But such officials already have a shoddy record. We are in serious trouble if we are even having a discussion about preventing our military from having religion as a detectable part of their lives.
Meanwhile, in the private sector, a track relay team in Columbus, Texas, a small town between Houston and San Antonio, won their race but were quickly disqualified—because one of the runners pointed upward after finishing. Just to be clear, he used his index finger, not his middle finger. The UIL (University Interscholastic League, an association for high school inter-school competitions) judge claimed the gesture broke the rules—not because it was religious, but because it could be interpreted as taunting the other competitors. Such gestures include celebratory gestures, even including raising the arms overhead.
OK, but there was no taunting or even a glance at opponents, and no arms were lifted overhead. The gesture wasn’t even a standard religious symbol, such as making a cross (which wouldn’t qualify as taunting or celebrating either, but this judge might claim it did). This was simply a young man, making a small signal to give glory to God at a moment of team glory. But lifting a finger was enough to nullify the years of intense training by all of the team members, the success of these runners in this race, and their hopes of going on to state finals.
I can’t verify this from the information available, but I don’t think it was spelled out to these young men that pointing a finger toward God would disqualify them. They were probably told generally that celebratory gestures, such as doing a dance, or pointing at losers and taunting them, or otherwise showing bad sportsmanship would not be allowed. It is hard to imagine how that general policy would be interpreted in a young man’s mind as, “Oh, then I’d better not even point to God if I feel thankful to him.”
We often look at Nazi Germany and wonder, “How did they get like that?” The way it happened was, things like we are seeing started happening, and people shrugged it off, rather than stand up and put a stop to the foolishness. And pretty soon the foolishness became serious and life threatening.


  1. Don't ask don't tell returns to the military.

    Pfc Abbott: "what you doing Sunday, Costello?"
    Pfc Costello: "exactly, Abbott."
    Abbott: "exactly what?"
    Costello: "that's right."
    Abbott: "what's right?" Etc etc etc