National Defense Dogma

The House Armed Services Committee’s markup of the National Defense Reauthorization Act (NDAA) generated a lot of buzz last week in the church-state world.  People were talking about the debate over Senator Rob Andrews’ (D-NJ) amendment, which would have recognized non-theistic military chaplains.  And, people should have been talking—opponents of the amendment said some shocking things about non-theistic service men and women.  But there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the two amendments that were actually adopted by the Committee and are now part of the NDAA, which will move forward on the House floor at the end of this week.  

First, the Committee adopted Representative Walter Jones’ (R-NC) amendment that allows military chaplains “if called upon to lead a prayer outside of a religious service,” to have “the prerogative to close the prayer according to the traditions, expressions, and religious exercises” of his faith.  Key to this amendment is the phrase “outside of a religious service.” 

Military clergy may already pray in a manner fitting their individual religious tradition in the worship services they lead for armed forces members.  But this provision would provide chaplains with the right to engage in sectarian prayer at large, mandatory, military gatherings, attended by service men and women of diverse faiths. 

Representative Susan Davis (D-CA) recognized the distinction between a “more personal kind of service,” like a worship service, and “largely attended events.” She spoke against the amendment, calling for “a respect for and understanding” that these large events “are a different kind of setting and that it’s not appropriate at those particular occasions” to sanction the military chaplain to engage in sectarian prayer.

We agree.  This language puts the desire of individual chaplains to proselytize and engage in sectarian prayers ahead of the interests, rights, and needs of the soldiers to be free from such coercive acts.  And, we thank Representative Davis for speaking up on the issue.  Unfortunately, the Committee adopted the amendment anyway.    

The Committee also adopted an amendment by Representative John Fleming (R-LA) regarding the “rights of conscience” of members of the military.  Congress adopted a similar problematic provision last year, but apparently even that didn’t go far enough for Rep. Fleming.  His amendment requires the “accommodation” of the religious “beliefs, actions, and speech” of service members without real regard for the effect such accommodation would have on other service members.     

Representative Adam Smith (D-WA) argued against this provision, saying that the new language would allow behavior “that could be more intimidating to the people of other faiths than it is enabling to the person of faith.”  And, he explained that it will “make it extraordinarily difficult for the military to do its job and strike the right balance on this issue.”

The Committee, however, did not heed his wise advice and passed this amendment as well.

The NDAA will move to the House floor at the end of this week.  And today we will find out if any bad church-state amendments will be approved for floor consideration.  Stay tuned to our twitter feed to find out.