By Mike Berry, General Counsel
No one has been immune to the coronavirus’s effects, including our military. But as I learned in the Marine Corps, threats to freedom never take a day off. Our service members must remain at their posts, even as COVID-19 ravages the nation.
During such times of uncertainty and anxiety, faith serves as an invaluable ally. Whether in combat against flesh and blood or against an “invisible enemy” such as this virus, faith has always been a major force multiplier for our military. That is why it is particularly egregious to see those who defend us and our freedom needlessly being deprived of the very freedom they defend: religious freedom.
In an immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Department of Defense installation chapels were ordered closed. Many service members, veterans, and their dependents were left without a place to worship. Because the role of the military chaplain is to carry out the constitutional mandate to provide for service members’ free exercise of religion, many chaplains sought creative and alternative means of providing for the spiritual needs of the communities they serve. While some chaplains livestreamed their messages via the internet, others used social media — and often with very positive responses. Such efforts to “bring God to the soldier” should be commended and encouraged.
Sadly, one organization saw the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to advance its agenda of an unconstitutional religious cleansing of the military.
The Orwellian-monikered Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which once demanded 400 trials by courts-martial for service members who dared to exercise their First Amendment rights, recently embarked on a campaign of assaults against religious freedom within the military.
The MRFF publicly demanded immediate punishment against four Army chaplains because they had the audacity to carry out their constitutionally mandated mission during the pandemic.
At Fort Drum, New York, chaplains assigned to the Army’s legendary 10th Mountain Division published a series of videos to a social media site inviting viewers to pray in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. At Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, another Army chaplain also published a video to social media in which he sought to encourage viewers with a message of hope during difficult times. At Camp Humphreys, South Korea, yet another Army chaplain who sought to offer encouragement and hope sent an email to his fellow Christian chaplains, commending to them a Christian book he recently read.
In each case, the MRFF demanded the Army to censor or discipline the chaplains, and the Army quickly complied with the MRFF’s demands.
These incidents share two common characteristics. First, in each instance, the chaplains were within their rights in their actions. Indeed, they were merely carrying out their noble duties as chaplains. Second, the Army’s actions in each incident are unlawful.
The MRFF’s demands are based on the flawed notion that military chaplains may not carry out their official duties outside of a religious ceremony that occurs within the four walls of a chapel. Army leaders must know better by now. Federal law, military regulations, and court precedents contradict the MRFF’s specious claims.
Federal laws such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ensure these long-standing religious freedom principles are upheld, even in the military. Moreover, recent legislation from Congress makes clear that the Defense Department must accommodate individual expressions of religious belief, which undoubtedly include a military chaplain’s religious expression, whether conveyed via social media, email, or other means. Contrary to the MRFF’s assertion, there is no exception when such religious expressions occur outside the chapel.
In each of the aforementioned incidents, the Army’s immediate reaction to the MRFF’s demands violated the constitutionally protected rights of these chaplains. The Army should act swiftly to correct these mistakes as quickly as it made them.
History teaches that we ignore threats at our own peril. Yet, ironically when it comes to threats from snake oil salesmen such as the MRFF, ignoring them is not only the wisest course of action — it’s the moral, ethical, and constitutionally correct strategy. Just as our military continues its efforts to slow the spread of disease, it must also slow the MRFF’s spread of misinformation, dubious legal claims, and bully tactics.