Defense Bill Includes Religious Freedom Language

A joint House-Senate conference has reached agreement on the final version of the 2014 Defense Authorization Bill, which includes some provisions regarding religious freedom while not including other provisions that were in the original bill. One of those provisions protects the right to proselytize:

Unless it could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline, the Armed Forces shall accommodate individual expressions of belief of a member of the armed forces reflecting the sincerely held conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the member and, in so far as practicable, may not use such expressions of belief as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment.

This seems quite reasonable to me. Proselytizing, in and of itself, should not be a problem. A soldier who shares his faith with another has not done anything wrong unless there is some coercion with it, such as when someone of higher rank uses his position to exert pressure on someone of lower rank. In such a case, that important first clause would be in effect because it does undermine unite cohesion and good order. But merely proselytizing is protected speech and it should be.

One provision that did not make it in would have required the Pentagon to notify the House Armed Services Committee whenever they meet with a civilian involving policy that could impact religious freedom. We could call that the anti-Mikey Weinstein rule because that is what prompted it. But the conference committee removed that provision.

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  • Artor

    I’m not as optimistic as you, Ed. While you and I understand that proselytizing to the troops undermines unit cohesion, you should know that any hard-core Xian officer thinks that making sure everyone under his command is a good Xian soldier would improve that situation. I think the bill would be better if it provided explicit guidelines against officers pressuring their subordinates. I can easily see someone like Klingenschmitt or that obnoxious Air Force major violating this blatantly with the excuse, “But I was just trying to IMPROVE unit cohesion by converting those insubordinate Jews & atheists & Muslims in my command!

  • Alverant

    If you think there’s not going to be any coercion in the proselytizing, then you’re rather naive. I also doubt this provision will apply to non-christians who try to proselytize as well. “could have an adverse impact on military readiness” is too vague to be reverent. I have no doubt it will be used to excuse christian proselytizing and suppress everyone else.

  • matty1

    Suggested additional language.

    “Nothing in this part shall be taken to imply a right of any officer or non comissioned officer to make religious expression or the lack thereof the basis for any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment, or to otherwise use their rank to influence the religious views and activities of those under their command”

  • steve84

    Complete BS and a total capitulation to the religious whackjobs

    I’ve also stopped taking anything and anyone seriously who uses the meaningless catchphrase “good order and discipline”

  • steve84

    By the way, this isn’t really targeted at religious expression in general. The main goal here is to allow homophobes to bully and harass gay people with impunity.

  • Michael Brew

    The problem with this, as well as most military regulations dealing with anything more complicated than how to assemble a piece of equipment, is that the vagueness of the language allows for a lot of wiggle room. Even one hardcore Christian could create an implicitly hostile work environment for a nonreligious, gay, prochoice, or what-have-you coworker without ever being called out for undermining unit cohesion. Oh, we would think it does, but guess who decides what’s good for unit cohesion? Commanders. Unfortunately, most of them won’t see it the same way.

  • gerryl

    So what does the bill say about the right not to be proselytized at?

  • eric

    This seems quite reasonable to me.

    It seems open to a lot of potential abuse to me. How much you want to bet that, at least in some units, expressions of Islam (or atheism, or polytheism, or, or, or…) will be deemed to have a negative impact on unit cohesion while expressions of Christianity won’t. I’m sure we have a number of bigots in our offier corps who would be happy to use “it adversely effects good discipline” as cover for selectively favoring some sects and religions while disfavoring others.

    The whole unit cohesion thing bothers me a little bit. I can see how it’s a critically important concept, but its so tightly bound up with majority rule and consensus-building that it’s hard to see how any important substantive disagreement among troops could survive the “…if it could adversely impact unit cohesion” standard. Conservatives arguing with liberals over Obamacare could affect unit cohesion. Does that mean we don’t allow our troops to discuss politics? Heck, a serious Batman vs. Superman argument could affect unit cohesion. So no comic book talk either? The idea that religious disagreement’s won’t affect unit cohesion in some negative way is fairly ludicrous, given that they can be even more tightly held than any other beliefs.

    I am not sure how, but there’s got to be a way that we can train the troops or otherwise promote the idea that morale and cohesion can and should align with healthy disagreement, and that groupthink is not the same thing as unit cohesion.

  • Robert B.

    And how exactly would you write a rule that can’t be abused by military commanders? Forbid proselytizing, and suddenly those same Christian commanders would be cracking down on subordinates who mention that they’re Jewish or insist on going to mosque or say there’s no god. Talking about Christianity, in those units, would not be considered proselytizing.

    In such an authoritarian environment, there’s no such thing as a rule that can’t (or won’t) be abused.