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Military Sees Increase In Conflicts Over First Amendment Freedoms


This Independence Day, millions of Americans took time to honor those in the military who risk their lives to ensure America remains free and independent. Unfortunately, an increasing number of military members are discovering their own rights to free speech and religious expression are being curtailed within the very institution they’ve sworn an oath to uphold, whose primary purpose is to protect those same rights for the rest of us.

Since 2013, there have been approximately 70 attempts to curtail these rights for those who serve in the armed forces, either relating to members’ beliefs, memorials that honor veterans, or religious speech. These attempts to stifle members of the military’s First Amendment rights have increased even more in the last five years. Here are a few samples of what those issues look like to the men and women who serve.

Military’s Record on Religious Freedom Getting Spotty

There have been several recent examples of religious members of the military being unable to express their views or hold to their conscience without negative repercussions. As a chaplain serving in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Scott Squires often conducted marriage retreats for couples called “Strong Bonds.” Recently he declined to conduct this retreat for same-sex couples due to his religious beliefs and the guidelines set forth by his endorsers.

Squires is obligated both to the Army and to follow the rules established by his chaplain-endorsing agency, the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Squires’ endorsing agency forbids its chaplains from facilitating marriage retreats that include same-sex couples. The Army requires that chaplains adhere to their endorsers’ rules.

Even though Squires made sure the soldier requesting the retreat was placed in the next available “Strong Bonds” event conducted by another chaplain, he faced disciplinary action on an accusation of sexual discrimination.

Mike Berry, a former active-duty attorney with the Marine Corps and counsel at nonprofit law firm First Liberty, explained the juxtaposition between the chaplain’s religious freedoms and military protocol: “Federal law protects Chaplain Squires and prohibits the military from punishing any chaplain who acts in accordance with their religious tenets[…] Chaplains should not have to give up their First Amendment rights in order to serve.”

Many denominations within the Christian faith abstain from endorsing same-sex marriage, and this is the church’s historic practice, but some consider this worthy of disciplinary action. Still, under federal law and Department of Defense regulations, the military may not take adverse action against a chaplain who acts in accordance with his or her religious tenets.

In a statement, Squires said, “I was shocked the investigator concluded that I should be reprimanded for doing something I’m required to do under Army regulations and my endorser’s rules. I hope the Army sees that I was simply following Army regulations and the tenets of my church.”

The Air Force recently disciplined another chaplain because he converted to Judaism, violating his religious expression as well. Jeff Montanari had previously served as a chaplain endorsed by the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. When he told his commanding officer that he was converting to Orthodox Judaism, the officer made him continue as a Christian chaplain. Monantari reapplied to be a Jewish chaplain, and the Air Force rejected him without explanation.

Free Speech Is Under Fire Within the Military

Free speech is also under attack within military ranks, as a number of recent examples show. Before his 2016 retirement ceremony, Master Sergeant Chuck Roberson wanted Oscar Rodriguez Jr. to deliver a flag-folding speech honoring his 33 years of service in the U.S. Air Force. Because Rodriguez’s speech mentioned God and they believed this was a violation of protocol, a group of uniformed Airmen forcibly removed Rodriguez from the ceremony as he spoke. (Footage of the episode is here.) The two men have since filed a lawsuit against the Air Force, asking for an apology.

In 2005, the Air Force adopted an official flag-folding script that eliminated religious references but did not, according to First Liberty attorneys, restrict the mention of God altogether. It only made mentioning God optional. The Air Force inspector general reviewed this case and maintains the removal of Rodriguez had nothing to do with his mention of God, but the incident did prompt the Air Force “to review its rules governing the flag-folding portion of retirement ceremonies, and allow some ceremonies to contain religious elements if the retiring airman so wishes.”

In a 2016 statement, the Air Force said it concluded the language that governed flag-folding scripts at retirement ceremonies was too restrictive, so they rescinded much of it. The Air Force Times reports, “Under the new rules, an airman having a retirement ceremony – as long as attendance is voluntary – can have a script of their choosing read during the flag-folding portion.”

The lawsuit is still pending. Rodriguez and Roberson still believe they have a case and that Rodriguez’ free speech rights were violated during the ceremony.

Military Members Deserve Their Rights, Too

Not all is lost for members of the military who want to protect the First Amendment and freely practice it themselves. Decorated Air Force Col. Leland Bohannon declined to sign an unofficial certificate of appreciation for a subordinate’s same-sex spouse. The colonel had a two-star general sign the form in his place, and received disciplinary action for it.

However, upon further review and the appeal of Bohannon’s attorneys at First Liberty, the Air Force secretary reversed the unfavorable decision of an Air Force Equal Opportunity investigator, which cleared his name and restored his service record.

As such, the military takes on an incredible task. They need not also become the arbiter of speech and religious expression of their service members. While military leaders might worry they could be perceived as endorsing religion if they let someone mention God, or that they will displease some people if a chaplain refuses to honor a same-sex marriage retreat request, in following the line of least cultural resistance they are failing to protect for service members the very rights the military exists to protect in the first place.

First Amendment freedoms are for everyone, even those who serve in the military. In fact, one could argue, they should especially be for those in the military, since they are the ones laying their lives on the line to protect the Constitution and culture that makes this country so uniquely free. The men and women who fight for our constitutional rights should be able to enjoy those rights themselves.