Rep. John Fleming, R-La recently offered an amendment to proposed NDAA legislation that would have “required the Armed Forces to accommodate ‘actions and speech’ reflecting the conscience, moral, principles or religious beliefs of the member.” The Obama administration has taken a position against the amendment because, in their opinion, it would cause a distraction in the ranks and make completion of any mission more difficult.
Others have framed this as an “anti-gay” amendment meant to allow soldiers (and the assumption being particularly “Christian” soldiers) to “harass” homosexual service members.
If like me, you were surprised that an amendment of this nature would even be necessary considering what the First Amendment to the Constitution tells us:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Seems pretty cut and dry, no? Congress (or our government) cannot make any law that allows for the prohibiting of free speech or the free exercise of our religions. There are exceptions for practices that could infringe on the rights of others, but you’d be hard pressed to show that modern Christianity (or most other mainstream religious beliefs) cause a “real” negative impact on those around the practitioner.
In recent cases where Christians have been reprimanded for their beliefs, the negative impact is nebulous at best, and if we are honest, the complaints against them were superfluous: “Expressing agreement with a traditional definition of marriage”, “Not allowing same sex marriage in a Christian chapel”, “Serving Chik-fil-A at a party”.
These hardly seem like experiences that can cause any real physical or emotional pain. If we begin to legislate against the beliefs of our citizens in even the slightest way, we do great harm to the cause of Liberty.
However, if you’ve ever served in the military or tried to stay current on First Amendment law, you know that the Supreme Court has ruled that our soldiers do not have the same First Amendment rights as the rest of the civilian populace.
“They do, in fact, have the same first amendment rights as their civilian brothers. They are, however, not absolute…The difference is that the military has peculiar needs and interests apart from those of the civilian community it serves, and they preclude the exercise of the right of free speech on as broad a basis as is the practice in the civilian community. No officer or man in the armed forces has a right, be it constitutional, statutory or otherwise, to publish any information (or make any statement) which will imperil his unit or its cause.”
I can understand the need for certain restrictions of rights as it pertains to the military because of the command structure that exists there. Joining the military means sacrificing some of your freedom (which is why the Selective Service Act is so abhorrent – but that’s an argument for another day), but the ambiguity of this ruling leaves our service men and women in a difficult place. The last clause, “which will imperil his unit or its cause”, leaves the door wide open for misconduct on the part of a soldiers’ superior officers or the military itself. Who is the judge of what might imperil, and how can this standard be judiciously applied to everyone equally? It cannot.
While Rep. Fleming’s amendment may not be perfect, he is right. The military needs a clear and concise rule to be guided by on First Amendment issues. The rights of our servicemen are of too great importance for there to be any uncertainty on the issue.