Despite two years of Congressional efforts to affirm a service member’s freedom to practice and express their faith in the military, confusion over the scope of that freedom persists, particularly in the Air Force. Noting that confusion’s detrimental effect on troop morale, Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) introduced an amendment to the House version of the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act which calls upon the Department of Defense and the Air Force to issue clearer regulations regarding religious expression. Last night, the House unanimously approved that amendment and today the House passed the overall Defense authorization bill (H.R. 4435) by a bipartisan vote of 325 to 98.
Policy vagueness on something as fundamental as an Airman’s ability to exercise his First Amendment rights ultimately restricts rights and hurts service members. That’s a reality Congressman Lamborn has witnessed firsthand in his own Congressional District at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Earlier this spring, national headlines drew attention to the fact that the simple posting of a Bible verse on a personal white board was deemed offensive enough to start an Academy investigation and prompt command pressure to remove the quote. Such a harsh response to a minor and non-confrontational reference to one’s personal beliefs reveals the topsy-turvy approach towards religious expression in the Air Force at present. Whereas most reasonable people expect to encounter opinions in life with which they don’t agree, the country’s elite future war fighters are being schooled to think that a potential personal objection to another’s opinions are justifiable grounds for viewpoint censorship.
Of course, cultivating true leadership traits means cultivating the ability to listen to those with whom you may not agree -- a skill undermined when future officers are instructed repeatedly to claim offense at another individual’s exercise of their freedom of religion. Indeed, several scholars with the U.S. Army War College recently drew attention to this point, noting that even the mere perception of hostility towards faith in the military has a detrimental impact on morale and the cultivation of virtue in the ranks.
Congressman Lamborn’s amendment recognizes that current policy needs to be revised in order to better reflect the law, provide clarity to commanders, and furnish certainty for men and women of faith in our military. Though the Air Force has indicated in recent weeks that it may review its policies, House passage of H.R. 4435 today ensures that they take that mandate seriously.