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Important Religious Freedom Protection Included in Defense Funding Bill

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December 22, 2023
Religious Freedom Protection in Military | First Liberty Institute

by Jorge Gomez • 4 min read

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which lays out the annual budget and expenditures of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The bill includes a provision that protects religious expression on military installations.

First Liberty attorney and Director of Military Affairs Mike Berry explains that Section 1049 of the legislation creates a new procedure for the DoD to process complaints or requests regarding public displays or public expressions of religion on DoD property.

Instead of having the ability to strong arm front office staff into removing religious displays, these organizations will need to submit formal complaints which will be directed to the Secretary whom will consult with the Chief of Chaplains and an attorney.

The new rule “doesn’t provide for any specific outcomes. It just provides for a specific process and procedure that those decisions now need to go through,” Berry clarified.

According to the Washington Times, “once a complaint is received at a Defense Department installation, it would have to be forwarded to the person who is authorized to decide within 10 days. The decision-maker would have to rule within 30 days and offer a ‘timely’ notification to the complainant of the decision.”

Previously, out of fear of a lawsuit and a misunderstanding of the Establishment Clause, low-level base personnel could determine there was no room on military property for religious displays, such as nativity scenes, menorahs or Scriptural references. That’s what makes this such an important step toward protecting religious freedom in the military. It will discourage “knee-jerk” overreactions to scrub references to the Divine.

Berry said that the NDAA’s new provision would help cover times when “somebody complained about [a] nativity scene, so we have to remove the nativity scenes, or somebody complained that there was a Christmas tree so we got to take down the Christmas tree. Of course, those decisions have no basis in law or the Constitution, but they nevertheless seem to happen.”

Radical groups are known to submit unfounded complaints for even the smallest whiff of religious expression on military installations. At one point, one anti-religion group tried to deflate the holiday cheer when they complained about an inflatable “Soldier Santa Claus” on an Army base at the commissary at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, VA. The figure stood wearing operational camouflage and whose lapel read “Christmas Force.” They claimed the figure was unconstitutional because it’s holding a small sign with the phrase, “God Bless America.”

That’s just one example, of course. Every year, we witness countless attacks on religious freedom throughout all branches of the military. First Liberty frequently has to step in and provide assistance to make sure military officials don’t cave into pressure from adversarial groups. We often find ourselves having to clarify what the law and military regulations say about religious expression in the armed forces.

“For too long, woke activists have been able to eliminate religious freedom from the military with very little resistance,” Berry said. “This provision is a positive step towards protecting religious freedom for those who sacrifice the most to defend it. This will protect religious expression from the whims of organizations that wish to scrub religion from the public sphere.”

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