Religious Freedom and the Military: A Short History

The concept and practice of religious freedom in the United States Armed Forces date back to the earliest days of this nation. The United States Constitution outlines the basic concept of religious freedom as understood by Americans in the Bill of Rights. More specifically, the First Amendment to the Constitution specifies that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

All branches of the United States military are afforded the same rights to religious freedom as are American civilians. However, members of the Armed Forces willingly surrender on a temporary basis certain free exercise rights when it impinges on military discipline and the successful completion of a military objective. This guarantee of religious freedom is codified for the Armed Forces in Title 10, United States Code (USC), sections 3073, 3547, 5142, and 8067. Free exercise of religious freedom for military personnel is further detailed in Department of Defense Directive (DODD) 1300.17, “Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services,” which describes the commander’s responsibility to provide for religious accommodation.

Codes and directives notwithstanding, the free exercise of religious freedom in the military has, by and large, followed the mores of American society in general. That is, as the understanding of free exercise expanded outside the military, so did it expand within the U.S. Armed Forces. This history of the growing embrace of religious pluralism can perhaps best be seen in the expansion of the Chaplaincy, whose role it is to provide for the free expression of religious belief by members of the Armed Forces.

For example, not until the war with Mexico in 1846 were Roman Catholics incorporated into the chaplaincy corps. Until then, only Protestants served as chaplains, a situation that put the United States at a propaganda disadvantage when fighting Catholic Mexico. In 1862, “Christian” was stricken from regulations governing the appointment of chaplains by recognized religious denominations to allow for the appointment of Jewish chaplains. This change was brought about as a result of a request made to President Abraham Lincoln by the Board of Delegates of American Israelites.

During World War II, Greek Orthodox chaplains were authorized to minister to members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and in 1987, the Department of Defense registered the Buddhist Churches of America as an ecclesiastical endorsing agency, thus opening the door for Buddhist chaplains. In 1993, the first Muslim chaplain was added by the Army - yet another sign of America’s growing religious diversity and the recognition that it is the Armed Forces’ Constitutional responsibility to meet the free expression needs of those in its ranks who hold minority religious views.

Religious freedom takes on an additional importance in the current international environment, where religious motivations are an increasing rationale for waging conflict. At a time when the United States is encouraging greater religious freedom in Muslim nations, it is imperative upon America to show by example that religious pluralism is a viable and preferred option. Any sign of hypocrisy in Unites States policy, official or otherwise, toward the free exercise of religion within the military makes it more difficult to convince others to follow our nation’s chosen path.

MRFF’s role is to ensure that our government does indeed adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution; that it leads by example. The next chapter in the never-ending struggle to expand religious freedom in the military is being written, and MRFF is playing a critical part in the effort. A watchdog’s role requires constant vigilance.