Freedom of Religion in the Military

Throughout most of the twentieth century, understanding the Constitution and how it affected the work of chaplains didn’t seem all that important. Today, however, it is imperative for every chaplain in the Armed Services to fully understand the Constitution, the Establishment Clause, and the Free Exercise Clause because there is so much at stake.

The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from creating an official state religion. Although the precise definition of “establishment” is unclear, historically it referred to government-sponsored churches or religions, such as the Church of England, or any of the other officially recognized national religions throughout the world.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The Free Exercise Clause, on the other hand, extended religious protection to individuals, giving them the right to practice the religion of their choice without fear of punishment or negative consequences.

Although the Constitution deals with religious freedoms for all citizens, it doesn’t specify or authorize a military chaplaincy. Our government and military leaders have decided that having military chaplains is the best way for the constitutional rights and privileges of military personnel to be guaranteed, implemented, and supervised.

In essence, citizens of the United States don’t lose their constitutional rights when they enlist or become an officer in the military.

There have been many challenges to having chaplains in the military and there will be more, but each case inevitably comes back to the Constitution’s Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause. In a nation where people of many faiths live side-by-side, the First Amendment’s free exercise clause protects individuals from government interference in the practice and expression of their faith. The government cannot target laws at specific religious practices or place undue burdens on its citizens who want to worship.

Constitutional authority travels in a direct chain of command: from the Constitution, to the President, to the Secretary of Defense, to the Pentagon, to the Branches of Service, on down to the unit Commanders. The chaplain is the commander’s personal staff officer who is delegated the task of implementing and supervising the constitutional religious freedoms, restrictions, and opportunities. In essence, the religious program in the military belongs to the commander, and the chaplain works for the commander to make sure it is done properly and legally. That’s why every chaplain must understand the constitutional issues.

An important consideration to keep in mind here is that it’s the government that is specifically limited by the constitutional amendment. Because religious freedom is an important part of our national values, the government isn’t allowed to restrict those rights or to infringe on the individual’s free exercise of religion. Nor can the government impose religion onto the individual. This is particularly relevant to commanders and chaplains in the military.

The commander has legal and constitutional authority; the chaplain is the subject matter expert who provides ministry for those of his or her faith group, facilitates meeting the religious needs for those of other faith groups, and ensures that all personnel have the opportunity to practice their constitutional freedoms. And because of the Establishment Clause, the chaplain also makes sure nobody is coerced or forced to worship, and that nobody is subjected to presentations of religion against his or her will.

It’s important to note that the Constitution is the authority that gives chaplains the right to express their faith in a secular and pluralistic environment. But it also provides limitations that chaplains must respect. Otherwise, it is possible for chaplains to find themselves caught between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

These clauses were written into the constitution to protect churches from government, and also to protect individuals from religion, because freedom to worship also includes freedom not to worship.

Christians have freedoms, yet so does everyone else in the Armed Forces, and those freedoms are guaranteed. Chaplains have a crucial role in how religious rights play out in the military, and we need to know our role.

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