Bad Defense Maneuver: Military Spending Bill Provision Could Foster Religiously Based Discrimination

It’s never all right for government to discriminate in the name of religion.

It seems that closed-door negotiations between the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have produced a defense spending bill with a provision that could allow for discrimination against gays, lesbians and other minorities in the military.

This is a truth that we can’t handle. 

Mother Jones reported this week that U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), a darling of the Religious Right who torpedoed his own Senate candidacy with insensitive comments about “legitimate rape,” came up with this indecent proposal that could permit discrimination in the armed forces under the guise of religious freedom.

During negotiations with Democrats, Republicans fought hard to retain Akin’s proposal and managed to convince the other side to go along with what could be a major change to military governance, Mother Jones said.

The final version of the 2013 defense appropriations bill, which authorizes more than $600 billion in spending, contains a version of Akin’s original proposal. It was approved by the Senate today and will likely be passed by the House soon.

The current Department of Defense policy concerning religious practices in the military is perfectly fine. “It is DoD policy that requests for accommodation of religious practices should be approved by commanders when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on mission accomplishment, military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline.”

Akin’s proposal is much broader. It states that the armed forces “shall accommodate the beliefs of a member of the armed forces reflecting the conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs of the member and, in so far as practicable, may not use such beliefs as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination or denial of promotion, schooling, training or assignment.”

Some Democrats have argued that Akin’s proposal doesn’t really change anything. A Senate Democratic aide insisted, “There is nothing in this provision that would condone discrimination against gay and lesbian service members, or any other service member. It merely reflects current policy.”

The Pentagon agreed with that sentiment.

“[The provision] says those thoughts you've been thinking all along, you're allowed to keep thinking them,” a Defense Department official said.  But critics like Americans United aren’t so sure. Mother Jones reported that detractors said the new measure could allow an armed forces doctor to refuse to screen a female service member for cancer because she had engaged in premarital sex. In addition, those who feel homosexuality is a sin could refuse to serve alongside gays or lesbians.

“It’s going to generate endless issues,” Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, remarked. “The people who are behind this have mischief in mind rather than solving problems. The only way you could accommodate [homophobic] beliefs is by putting [homophobic people] in a unit with no gay people in it.”

This fuss started because some Religious Right groups were convinced that chaplains would be forced to preside at same-sex weddings. They won’t. Current military policy protects chaplains from this.

In fact, this is yet another example of the Religious Right looking to find a way to allow chaplains – who are expected to work with service personnel from a wide range of religious and philosophical beliefs – to proselytize and promote their faith over all others without fear of being reined in. (It’s only the fundamentalists who burn to do this; chaplains from mainstream religions know better.)

Yes, the rights of service members should be respected, but not at the expense of others. It seems that the old religious provisions were working well and there was no need to change them. Now, it looks like there will be havoc in the military as people try to sort out which beliefs are protected, which ones aren’t, and when it’s OK to discriminate in the name of religion.

Truthfully, it’s never all right for government to discriminate in the name of religion. Let’s hope policymakers find a way to prevent that from happening.

P.S. “The Wall of Separation” will be on hiatus until Dec. 26. Happy Holidays to all!