February 9, 2014

Military Brass Say They’re Not Aware of Bias Against Chaplain

 ©2014 Religion News Service

Lawmakers peppered Pentagon officials on January
29 about claims that military chaplains have faced discrimination for their
beliefs, and time and again, chaplains and personnel officials said they were
unaware of any bias.

Virginia Penrod, deputy assistant secretary of
defense for military personnel policy, told the House Subcommittee on Military
Personnel that she could not cite specific instances where chaplains had to
preach a sermon or oversee a ceremony that conflicted with their beliefs.

“There’s absolutely nothing in policy or code
that prohibits a chaplain from praying according to the dictates of their
faith,” she said.

In recent years conservative activists have
complained that some military chaplains have been restricted in fully preaching
their beliefs or have been muzzled or forced to follow policies they disagree

The hearing came a week after the Pentagon
released an updated “instruction” on accommodating religious practices.
Additional updates, including specific policies about chaplains, will be
completed this summer, Penrod said.

Members of the panel questioned whether military
commanders are allowed to proselytize. Brig. Gen. Charles R. Bailey, the Army’s
deputy chief of chaplains, said it would be “wrong” for commanders to say that
their faith is superior to any other, but other kinds of private conversations
about faith are permitted.

“They’re never told they cannot share their own
personal faith of any sort,” he said.

Some members of Congress seem to have a different
impression from the military’s top chaplains about the state of religious
accommodation in the military, said Bishop James B. Magness of the Episcopal
Church’s armed services office.

“There’s a real disconnect,” said Magness, “if
things are being said to members of Congress that are not getting to the chiefs
of chaplains. I don’t have a reason for why.”

Sikhs concerned about the need for greater
accommodation showed up at the packed hearing room and provided written
statements to the committee saying a “presumptive ban on Sikh articles of
faith” remains in the new policy. The military has said that Sikhs, who wear
turbans and beards in accordance with their faith, must be dealt with on a
case-by-case basis.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nevada, expressed concern that
Sikhs “still require a new waiver every time there’s a change of assignment.”

Penrod said the military “tries to balance the
needs of the service member with the needs for mission accomplishment.”

Army Maj. Kamaljeet
Singh Kalsi, who attended the hearing in his camouflage turban, said afterward
that Sikhs will continue to petition Congress and the military to change the
policy to prevent Sikhs from having to “choose between God and country. Nobody
should be put into that situation.”