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New legislation seeks to affirm religious freedom in military

Michael Handman had been at basic training in Georgia for less than a month when he sent a letter home to his parents with a frightening message. Handman, who was 20 at the time, said he was being persecuted because he is Jewish.

“I have just never been so discriminated against, humiliated about my religion,” he wrote his parents in the 2008 letter, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I just feel like I’m always looking over my shoulder. Maybe your dad was right the Army is not the place for a Jew.”

Reports of religious intolerance, ranging from harassment like Handman experienced, to the removal of a menorah and nativity scenes from a California Air Force Base in December 2011, are part of what motivated Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to write legislation to protect the religious freedom of those serving in the military.

The National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law Dec. 26, 2013, by President Obama, calls on the U.S. military to accommodate “individual expressions of belief,” a step further than the previous version of the act, which was interpreted by some to stop short of allowing soldiers to speak freely about his or her faith without recrimination.

The new act aims to require the Department of Defense to ensure soldiers more religious freedom in word and deed, but as conflicts over faith in the military rise, and a long-abiding history of conflict when subordinates complain about their supervisors for unjust treatment persists, experts say only time will tell if the legislation will make an impact.

For Handman, the new NDAA law comes too late. Five years ago, the private was called derogatory names because of his faith, ordered to remove his yarmulke and rebuked for reading Jewish canon. Then, a few days after his letter home, on Sept. 24, 2008, Handman was lured into a laundry room and beaten to the point of unconsciousness, an Associated Press story says.

Handman was later transferred to another unit for his own protection, and the soldier who attacked him was discharged, but some say the conditions of the incident — a ritualistic military culture that favors Evangelical Christianity — never changed, and similar discrimination continues today.

Religious freedom

In 2012, another Jewish soldier was harassed on the job.

Since he joined the U.S. Army as an active duty soldier in 1989, he’s experienced some level of discrimination, he says, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, but in the last 18 months, the treatment has become intolerable.

“I’ve served in combat. I’m an outstanding officer, and all of a sudden I can’t do my job,” the solder said of negative treatment he received after he complained that his supervisor had ordered him to read the Bible in 24 hours and accept Jesus after the supervisor found out he was Jewish. “I was ready to quit the Army and leave and never come back. I couldn’t wear my yarmulke, I wasn’t allowed to have Kosher (meals). I was told, ‘We don’t want you around.’ ”

As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Lee says he became informed about conflicts over religious freedom in the military, and he became determined to do something about it.

“We had been getting reports that a lot of religious individuals within the military were being threatened or having action taken against them as a result of their very basic expression of religious belief,” Lee said recently. “In some instances, people were being affirmatively cautioned against expressing any kind of religious belief by commanding officers.”

In 2013, the Armed Services Committee attempted to address the issue by adding language to the NDAA that called for the military to “accommodate the beliefs” of its soldiers. But the language stopped short of including actions and speech associated with belief, Lee said, so resulting changes were stunted.

For example, the Family Research Council, a conservative nonprofit Christian lobbyist organization, points to a 2012 memo from Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz that commands leaders to “avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs” as evidence of curtailing religious speech among military commanders.

“Rather than erring on the side of restraining religious speech, we need to encourage our military to live in accordance to their faith,” said Leanna Baumer, senior legislative assistant for government affairs with the Family Research Council.

As part of legislation, the Department of Defense has 90 days from the day the law was passed to issue regulations on how the law should be applied. The Department of Defense issued its first directive on Jan. 22, which declares that sincerely held beliefs (religious or nonreligious) cannot be used as the basis of adverse personnel action or discrimination. The regulations also make accommodations for grooming and appearance. For example, soldiers might get permission to grow a beard or wear a yarmulke because of a religious belief.

The regulations are a step in the right direction, Baumer said, but only time will tell if the regulations go further, or if the new law is enforced.

“This amendment sent a message, loudly and clearly, that religious freedom means much more than accommodation of one’s religious belief,” Lee said. “It requires more of the government than the government allows people to think religious thoughts. They must also be able to engage in religious activity and speech.”

Changing religious intolerance

The anonymous Jewish soldier wrestling with discrimination doesn’t take much comfort in the Department of Defense’s regulations.

“They’re saying now I might be able to start wearing my beard, but I think that is going to make us bigger targets,” he said, voicing his disillusionment. “I don’t think the Army is addressing anything. I think they are trying to appear like they are, but in reality, it will make it more difficult for us.”

When the soldier was at his lowest point of discouragement, he contacted Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Weinstein, former legal counsel in the White House under Ronald Reagan, a registered Republican and retired Air Force officer, replied to the soldier’s email within 20 minutes.

Weinstein is a controversial advocate for religious freedom for members of the armed forces. His organization has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize six times, but groups like the Family Research Council refer to Weinstein as anti-Christian.

When Weinstein's foundation became involved, a nativity scene was removed from the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station this Christmas, a painting with a Bible verse was removed from an Air Force Base in Idaho and the anonymous soldier’s superiors were fired.

Weinstein blames religious intolerance in the military on a “Christian Taliban” of “fundamentalist Christians” run amok.

“They’re now saying, ‘We are the ones being victimized, we are now the prey,’ when they were the predators,” Weinstein recently said from his office in New Mexico. “We see (that religious persecution) is more vicious, more violent, more stealthy and more pronounced.”

Weinstein advocates that commanders not place Bibles on their desktops because it might intimidate their subordinates. But while coercion and bullying are not the solution to greater religious freedom, neither is wiping away all traces of religion from the military, said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Individuals in the military should respect one another, even if their religious views differ, Blomberg says. Those who are offended by differing religions shouldn’t need to get the government involved to resolve their differences, he said, “Religious liberty means we agree to disagree and treat people in a respectful way.”

“A good test is, at the end of the day, are you creating more liberty for other people, or are you trying to shut down liberty for other people?” Blomberg said. “If you are creating more liberty, you’re going in the right direction.”