Dec. 20, 2013
Late last night, the U.S. Senate voted 84-15 to pass a compromise agreement on the annual defense authorization bill for Fiscal Year 2014, sending the legislation to the President for his signature just before the chamber plans to recess for the rest of the year. Significantly, the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contains language for the third year in a row addressing the need for religious accommodation in the military.
Though last year’s (FY 2013) NDAA established key requirements for the Department of Defense (DOD) to accommodate a service member’s religious beliefs, DOD has refused to issue the implementing regulations required by that law (Public Law 112-239). Moreover, military branches such as the Air Force have interpreted the law very narrowly to apply only to a service member’s ability to hold a belief, not to practice or express that belief. That truncated view of religious liberty has resulted in protections for a service member to attend a house of worship but no clear protections for a service member to apply the teachings of that house of worship to their daily life. Confusion at the command level has resulted in restrictive stifling of speech and career reprisals for some soldiers and Airmen who have vocalized their faith.
In the face of DOD’s ongoing disregard for Congressional intent, a bi-partisan group of Members and Senators acted again to ensure strengthening provisions were included in the House and Senate drafts of 2014 NDAA. The final version of the bill adopted last night (a compromise agreement negotiated by Committee leaders after regular order in the Senate was stymied by Majority Leader Reid) contains language specifically requiring DOD to accommodate the expression of belief and demanding DOD issue implementing regulations within 90 days of the law’s enactment. This is an important step forward and signals Congress’ seriousness about protecting the very freedoms our troops fight to defend.