George Washington believed that army chaplains are so important that a chaplain was one of the first officers he had commissioned. Today, however, military chaplains are in danger of losing the very freedoms of speech and religious liberty that our founders fought to establish, and that our fallen military men and women sacrificed their lives to preserve.
Recently the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs changed its policy and declared that the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other volunteers could not use religious speech at our national cemeteries. Since 1914 the VFW burial ceremonies have included four or five references to God. This language was banned and was not allowed in military funerals.
Former Army Senior Chaplain Rev. James R. Carter understands how this impacted the families whose fallen loved ones were being honored at these services. He says that chaplains have a three-fold role—to nurture the living, to care for casualties, and to honor those fallen in the service of their country. It’s a “very sacred responsibility of honoring the fallen, of making sure that that memorial service or ceremony is done not only to standard, but done with honor and with dignity.”
During Operation Iraqi Freedom Rev. Carter was deployed to Baghdad for 15 months as Senior Chaplain responsible for the 70 chaplains who were ministering to the multinational division stationed there. “During my watch we lost over 100 soldiers and so I went to over 100 memorial services.” He says these services are “the most sacred of ceremonies that we ever do.”
“We see the flag draped over the casket—[it] symbolizes America. In that casket is a young man or woman who has laid down their life for the freedoms that we enjoy. Standing there is an honor guard to honor the fallen. There’s always a chaplain standing there, usually reading something from scripture and talking about God’s comfort and strength in the midst of suffering.... It could be a rabbi; it could be an imam, but the point is, they have the freedom to express it.”
The former chaplain says, “I pray that our nation would never try to restrict, or to “muzzle,” if you will, that expression. I know that we have responsibility, a call to action, to stand firm and not allow it to happen.”
Indeed, it took the efforts of vigilant Americans to protect that right for chaplains to express religious speech at military funerals. Even after attorney Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Institute presented federal officials with over 30 affidavits from veterans and their families, pleading for the restoration of the right to use God’s name at these services, nothing was done until Shackelford took the issue to court.
In the end, a judge did issue a court order that changed all the national policies in all national cemeteries. “From now on,” says Shackelford, “no military family will be denied the right to mention God or Jesus if they so please, and nobody has to worry now whether they can say God or Jesus at a military funeral.”
But military funerals are not the only places where the religious speech of chaplains is being muzzled. For a time, Walter Reed Hospital, which was the army’s flagship medical center since 1909, prohibited ministers and individuals from bringing in religious materials and Bibles. Once again, it was the voices of Americans who raised an outcry over this regulation that resulted in this rule being overturned.
Nevertheless, says Rev. Carter, “it is a serious indicator that our religious freedom is being jeopardized.” He points out another recent example that arose when the Department of Health and Human Services put out new regulations on January 20, 2012 that will require employers to cover drugs and procedures—including contraceptives and antiabortionists—in their health insurance plans, regardless of whether such drugs violate their religious beliefs.
Following this announcement, the Archbishop of Military and Ministry for the Catholic Church sent out a letter to all Catholic priests on active duty with instructions that it was to be read during mass. In it he stated his concerns about the healthcare provision. “The senior leaders within the military were greatly concerned about this and told the Catholic priests not to read it,” says Carter. “Then they backed off and realized that they were infringing upon the religious expression and the free exercise of speech of our Catholic priests on active duty.”
Even so, Rev. Carter notes, “They also asked the Archbishop to please reconsider; but he did not. He stood his ground and our priests did read it and our military leaders understood that. But it created that tension that’s in the force right now.” Carter adds, “I was grateful for that, but it’s a red flag.”
As Mr. Shackelford points out, “We live in a country that was founded on religious freedom. The very first two clauses to the first amendment to the Constitution are both protecting the freedom of religion, and the federal government does not have the right, as occurred in the military here just recently, to tell Catholic chaplains and priests what they can say in Mass. That’s outrageous.”
The concern that military chaplains will be muzzled in the future has intensified since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Military chaplains are finding themselves on the “horns of a dilemma,” says Bishop Harry Jackson of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches. Not only may they be required to perform same-sex marriages, but Jackson says that they are under pressure from military leaders who are saying, “You cannot declare the doctrines that are a part of your church tradition world-wide because we feel that it’s discrimination.” According to Jackson, “That really amounts to taking away our first amendment rights and taking away our freedom.”
Rev. Carter says, “It’s very important that we do not bind the conscience of our chaplains on active duty. It’s important that our chaplains on active duty always remember that they have the freedom of religious expression and the freedom of speech to preach the full counsel of God, to never back down from standing strong for the glory of God.”