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Mixed votes from HASC on military religious freedom

Jun. 5, 2013 - 08:20PM   |  
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It was Jesus “yes” and atheists “no” during debate before the House Armed Services Committee on the 2014 defense policy bill Wednesday.

And, it would once again be OK for service members to express personal views — based on conscience or religious beliefs — about things such as opposition to gay marriage without fear of punishment.

By voice vote, the committee passed an amendment sponsored by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., allowing chaplains to following the traditions, expressions and religious exercises of their faith. That means, for example, to be able to complete a prayer “in Jesus’ name.”

Chaplains already have the right under existing policy to follow practices of their own faith during a religious service, but Jones’ amendment expands this to include situations when a chaplain is called upon to lead a prayer.

However, the committee rejected 43-18 an amendment proposed by Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., to add atheists, humanists and “ethical culturalists” to the chaplains corps to provide guidance and counsel to service members.

Andrews said the idea is to provide the same guidance and counsel to an atheist, agnostic or someone who belongs to no organized religious group that they could get from a chaplain if they followed a particular religion.

“I don’t offer this to be provocative. I don’t offer this to be an attack on anyone else’s faith,” Andrews said.

Objections were raised because chaplains require a religious sponsor, something not possible for someone who belongs to no group. Another concern was that general counseling services are available to service members through other military programs.

Andrews effort was endorsed by the Secular Coalition for America, which estimates 23 percent of service members are atheists or have expressed no religious preference.

Counselors and psychiatrists are an “inadequate substitution” for a chaplain because information discussed in sessions with a counselor or a psychiatrist is not confidential, under military policies, the coalition said in a statement. “The chaplain-patient relationship enjoys more confidentiality then the psychiatrist or counselor relationship does.”

On a 33-26 vote, the committee passed another religious freedom amendment offered by Rep. John Fleming, R-La., that modifies a law enacted last year allowing military members to hold personal beliefs as long as they did not express them in a way that harmed other service members.

The amendment allows speaking about personal beliefs to be restricted only in cases of “military necessity” and only if they do “actual harm.” Current law prohibits expressions that “threaten” but may not harm.

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