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By the Rev. Chris Cairns @christoferos

As an Army brat, the son of a West Point graduate whose father was also a graduate, I was well served by military chaplains while growing up on Army posts.  The community of faith at the Post Chapel spiritually supported us, offering our family a greater depth of fellowship within an already close-knit military community.  When our family faced difficulties that stretched us to the limit, chaplains served as spiritual advisors, offering counsel and encouragement toward moral choices inspired by our faith. 

When I faced a potentially career-ending eye surgery while a cadet at West Point, I turned to chaplains for hope and encouragement.

The chaplains at West Point had earned my trust over the course of my short tenure there as a plebe, and they afforded cadets voluntary opportunities for worship and prayer services, gatherings for fellowship, and Bible studies with peers.  Having been so well served throughout my life, I feel personally invested in the religious speech rights of service members and chaplains.  The history of the protection of these rights is a sacred trust, defended and handed down through generations by my own ancestry, which is a blend of religious, political, and military public servants dating back through the American Revolution to the first families of New England.

The Chaplain Corps of the Armed Forces is an historic institution rooted in the Nation’s founding, offering faith-based counsel as well as spiritual and moral support to the members of our armed forces.  Chaplains have historically exemplified the right balance between two values in tension in the First Amendment: protection against the establishment of one sole religion as a “State Church,” as well as protecting free speech in the public square.  In historical context, while the First Amendment is designed to protect free speech in general, religious speech is in mind in particular. Perhaps the road map for navigating the tension between these two long-standing American values can be found in the history of the chaplaincy, and rather than chipping away at these rights, we ought to be doing more to ensure that they are being strengthened and protected by every branch of government.

Much has been made in the media of late about the infringement of religious speech on those in the Armed Forces of the United States.  In addition, there have been very public and damaging recent exposures of moral failures.  In the midst of National Military Appreciation Month, following Armed Forces Day, and over the course Memorial Day Weekend, perhaps a greater depth of reflection on the vital role of chaplains in the Armed Forces is warranted.  After all, many who laid down their lives in the service of this great nation believed themselves to be defending the rights of citizens to freely assemble and practice their faith without fear of government intrusion or retribution.  It seems the Constitutional protections ensuring American rights to free religious speech, enshrining the values of those who departed Old Europe in search of freedom from religious persecution, have been consistently jeopardized by a chronic misapprehension of the spirit of the law in the First Amendment.

To its great credit, the Department of Defense has responded appropriately to inaccurate reports which stated that a member of the military could be court-martialed simply for sharing his or her faith. The Department restated and reasserted the existing policy ensuring the protection of religious practice and speech in the military, intending a culture of mutual respect while acknowledging a plurality of opinions.  The official response by the Office of the Secretary Defense read: “The U.S. Department of Defense has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution. The Department makes reasonable accommodations for all religions and celebrates the religious diversity of our service members.  Service members can share their faith (evangelize), but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one’s beliefs (proselytization).”  Note the careful and important distinction between openly sharing one’s faith, which is protected religious speech, and religious coercion, which is inappropriate behavior.  This would seem to strike the correct balance between the dual priorities of the First Amendment.

Even so, without ongoing resistance to increased limitations on religious speech in the public square, a bedrock American value could be lost, and service members and their families would be facing life’s toughest challenges with an inadequate support structure hampered by reductions in religious freedom.  The First Amendment, as written, was never intended to sanitize public discourse from the morality inspired by the religious faith of the American people.  Chaplains in the Armed Forces especially must continue to have the freedom to maintain their integrity as members of a distinctive faith group while at the same time tasked with the responsibility to cultivate an ethos of hospitality to service members of other faiths or no faith. 

The Pentagon has taken great pains in the midst of recent disclosures to decry isolated incidents such as the singling out of evangelicals and Catholics simply for upholding Christian teaching on human sexuality.  While these incidents are not reflective of national policy, they do represent a widening acceptance given to significant departures from what should continue to be constitutionally protected American freedoms.  We should not allow a transition to a culture in which the open sharing of one’s faith is endangered by state limitations on religious speech, for to do so would be to dishonor the memory of those who bled and died on battlefields foreign and domestic to preserve that very right.  We must ensure for future generations of Americans the rights our forebears laid down their lives protecting, among them, and perhaps especially, the free exercise of religious faith.

The Rev. Chris Cairns is an Anglican priest and the National Director of Alpha for the Military, a division of Alpha USA.  Rev. Cairns will be going on active duty this fall as an Army chaplain, continuing in the family tradition of public service in the military.