Pentagon discriminates against Christians, lawmakers say

Conservative lawmakers in Congress are pressing President Bush to issue an executive order that they say would protect freedom-of-speech rights of military chaplains.

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) is spearheading the effort to persuade the Bush administration to ease the Pentagon’s policies on prayer.

Jones will send a letter to the president tomorrow to make the case that Christian military chaplains in particular have been muzzled by the Department of Defense (DoD).

The letter initiated by Jones has gathered 32 signatures. Jones told The Hill that he is expecting to have upwards of 50 signatures by tomorrow. Among those who signed is Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

House Armed Services GOP members who have endorsed the letter include Reps. Jim Ryun (Kan.), Todd Akin (Mo.), Trent Franks (Ariz.) and Mike Conaway (Texas). A Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mike McIntyre (N.C.), has also signed the letter.

“We are disappointed and gravely concerned to learn that the Christian military chaplains are under direct attack and that their right to pray according to their faith is in jeopardy,” the letter says.

The lawmakers contend that the Air Force guideline calling for nonsectarian prayers “is merely a euphemism declaring that prayers will be acceptable so long as they censor Christian beliefs.”

The conservatives’ criticism comes against the backdrop of religious scandals that have rocked the Air Force, forcing the service to revise its guidelines on religious tolerance.

The guidelines were developed after allegations that evangelical Christians wielded so much influence at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment had become pervasive.

The new guidelines discourage public prayers on all but rare occasions. They also say that chaplains must be sensitive to those who do not welcome offerings of faith.

Conservative members of the House see the Air Force move as a precursor to Pentagon-wide policy.

“If approved, those guidelines may well be implemented throughout the entire DoD,” the letter states.

“We think it is extremely damaging, and that is denying the First Amendment rights of all of our chaplains,” Jones said. He noted that that the executive order would apply to chaplains of all faiths but that their focus is on Christian chaplains.

“Current surveys in the military indicate that upwards of 80 percent of soldiers identify themselves as Christians, and such censorship of Christian beliefs is a disservice not only to Christian chaplains but also to hundreds of thousands of Christian soldiers,” the letter states.

Jones said that if Bush does not act on their demand, the lawmakers will approach the issue legislatively.

“We believe the president has the authority to issue an executive order so that chaplains can pray in the name of the savior,” Jones said. “The president would do it much faster through executive order, and he has the authority to do that.”

A DoD spokesperson said that the military’s chaplain corps is committed to the First Amendment rights protecting the free exercise of religion for all authorized people.

The White House did not comment by press time.