Pentagon Cleans Up Its Religious Liberty Act

September 18, 2020

This week, in a strong show of support for religious liberty, the United States Department of Defense (DOD) issued new guidance protecting military service members from being punished for expressing their religious views. Following an executive order President Trump signed his first year in office, the DOD's announcement on its update of DOD Instruction 1300.17 (which contains the guidance) is very good news. In addition to setting forth a robust standard for religious liberty in the military, the updated guidance forbids service members from requiring chaplains to "perform any rite, ritual, or ceremony that is contrary to the conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the chaplain..."

Yesterday on the Washington Watch, Representative Jim Banks from the 3rd District of Indiana joined Tony to discuss what the DOD's guidance will mean for religious freedom in the military. Banks, who served during the Afghan War and remains a member of the House Armed Services Committee, praised the new guidance as "fundamental."

Referencing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the federal statute sets forth a high bar for the government to meet if it wants to infringe on religious liberty, and the guidance also provides protections for those seeking accommodations from the military to exercise their religious freedom. In addition, the guidance clarifies that "you can't violate the religious freedom of a chaplain," as Banks summarized for listeners.

Banks voiced what many people probably are thinking in reaction to this -- it seems crazy that something so clearly protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution would have to be stated explicitly in policy. But Banks continued with the stories of multiple military chaplains who have been punished for expressing their religious beliefs through mediums as innocuous as Facebook posts and book recommendations, proving the necessity of the DOD's guidance and the executive order which preceded it.

Banks applauded President Trump specifically for his administration's track record on religious liberty.

"It's important, and it's one of the reasons that many of us supported this president to begin with," Banks told Tony. "He's kept his word and fought to protect the religious freedom of not just every American, but in this case of our service members."

Mike Berry, General Counsel for First Liberty Institute, who worked hard to ensure this new guidance protected religious freedom in the military, shared Banks' sentiments in a statement he made on the DOD's new guidance.

"We still have a lot of work to do, but this new guidance is a huge step in the right direction for America's brave service members, for whom faith is an essential element of their life and duty," he said. "Since the days of the Revolutionary War, religious freedom has been a force multiplier for our military. We applaud our commander-in-chief, President Trump, and Secretary Esper for ensuring that religious liberty is alive and well in our armed forces."

Our own executive vice president, retired Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin, who has served our nation as deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and has worked tirelessly to restore religious freedom in the military was equally supportive:

"The recently-updated religious freedom guidance from the Pentagon is a welcome development both for our military and the cause of religious freedom. Thanks to President Trump's prioritization of this issue, we are finally seeing protections for religious freedom in our military clearly outlined in DOD policy -- as they should be. Those fighting to protect our Constitution and way of life must absolutely be able to exercise the same rights they are fighting to protect for the rest of us. This is crucial both to our freedom as individuals and our nation's future."

As Rep. Banks urged listeners on Washington Watch, we should not underestimate the significance of this policy. And as a former member of the military, he knows what he's talking about.

"I can tell you from my own personal experience serving in Afghanistan, the role of our chaplains is important," he told Tony. "It matters."

Despite the pushback the Trump administration has received from the Department of Defense, which retains many holdovers from the Obama administration, this new guidance indicates that the DOD may be heading in the right direction. Banks hopes that four more years with President Trump as commander-in-chief will bring further victories for religious liberty, which is why he considers Trump "the best president of my lifetime."