The U.S. Constitution guarantees religious freedom and prevents government support of religion. The provisions apply to those in the military, as well as civilians. Mike O'Sullivan reports, an organization led by a former military lawyer has challenged the Pentagon over religious issues.
Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force Judge Advocate, or legal officer, and one -time lawyer in the Reagan White House, heads a watchdog group called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. He helped file a lawsuit in September alleging that a soldier stationed in Iraq was prevented from holding a meeting for atheists and other non-Christians.
Weinstein says in this and other cases, over-zealous Christians have bullied subordinates.
"We're not trying to banish anybody's religion," said Mikey Weinstein. "We're just saying you can't use the draconian specter of U.S. military command influence to force a helpless subordinate to accept one particular biblical world view."
Weinstein filed an earlier lawsuit in 2005 arguing that the Air Force Academy, where his son was a cadet, pressured non-Christian students to attend Christian meetings, and practiced other forms of religious discrimination. The suit was dismissed and a Pentagon investigation found no overt discrimination at the academy. Bill Carr, who oversees military personnel policy at the Defense Department, says there were problems, however.
"The perception among cadets was that Christianity was openly practiced in an interfaith setting," said Carr. "The central theme was the assertion that in what should have been, or what was, an interfaith setting, one faith group was afforded prominence by leaders."
In response to the issue, the Pentagon instituted new guidelines and imposed training for religious tolerance.
Carr says the military has always tried to meet the spiritual needs its members, for example, by providing chaplains. They are drawn from various faiths and offer a sympathetic ear in times of trouble. They also lead voluntary worship services for members of their own faith. Carr says chaplains are instructed in their training not to seek converts from other religions.
"When a chaplain comes in, their faith group understands that there will be a requirement for pluralism," he said. "During their initial training, that is reinforced over and over, and the message is wonderfully received buy a huge majority of chaplains."
He says Christian chaplains, for example, who are in the majority, must use inclusive language in mixed settings where attendance is mandatory.
"If they are in an inter-faith setting, then they would behave in an inclusive way, for example, not praying in the name of Jesus Christ, since that singles out Christians, and instead praying, for example, to heavenly father," said Carr.
Critics object even to inclusive prayers, which they say are still religious and may offend some people. Weinstein says written guidelines are unclear and leave the door open to abuses.
The Pentagon policy has also upset some Evangelical Christians, including some members of Congress, who say the rights of Christian chaplains are being restricted if they are prevented from praying in the name of Jesus, even in mixed settings. A Navy chaplain was court-martialed last year for protesting the Pentagon policy while he was wearing his uniform.
Weinstein says he has received thousands of complaints from service members who allege religious coercion by fundamentalist Christians. He says most who complain are Christian themselves, and he adds that his organization is not attacking any faith, but respects the country's religions.
"Are we a Christian nation? We are.," said Weinstein. "Are we a Jewish nation? Yes. Are we a Hindu and Buddhist and Wiccan nation? Are we an atheist and agnostic nation? Yes, yes. We are everything. But you do not have the right to use your position of employment superiority in a civil context or military command authority to force your biblical world view."
A survey last year by the Military Times newspaper showed that 80 percent of respondents felt free to practice and express their religion in the military. Twelve percent, however, said they did not feel free to do that.
In August, the Defense Department's inspector general found that seven officers, including four generals, acted improperly when they appeared in uniform in a promotional video for an Evangelical Christian organization.
Bill Carr says military leaders are responsible for ensuring that members of the armed forces can practice their religion, or practice no religion, as they choose, consistent with good military order.
Mikey Weinstein says he will continue using the courts to try to end what he calls pervasive religious discrimination in the military.