A group of military chaplains is launching a campaign to protect religious freedom in the U.S. Armed Forces – but only for service members of the Christian faith.
The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty said Tuesday it planned to reach out to Christian members of the military in coming months to inform them of their "constitutionally guaranteed religious liberties." The alliance will connect with those soldiers through its 2,400 member chaplains – which represent nearly half of the total number of chaplains in the military.
"They'll receive a palm card... saying: here are your religious liberties and here is what to do if threatened," said Ron Crews, the executive director of the alliance, at a press conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday. "They could receive counsel from chaplains, or legal representation."
All 2400 members of the Chaplain Alliance come from evangelical or orthodox Christian backgrounds, according to Crews, despite chaplains representing a range of religious beliefs across the military.
The Pentagon did not specifically comment on the chaplains' campaign. But in May, it released a statement saying service members were welcome to share their faith with others but not to proselytize.
"The U.S. Department of Defense has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said at the time. Christensen reiterated that policy position to U.S. News on Tuesday.
In recent months, Christian conservatives have increasingly sounded the alarm over what they say is discrimination against Christians in the military who share their faith with others.
On Tuesday, several members of Congress echoed those concerns, including Rep. John Fleming, R-La., who introduced a military religious freedom amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act in June. Fleming's amendment would require the Armed Forces to not only accommodate the religious beliefs of service members, which it currently does, but also any actions and speech related to religious beliefs.
The Obama administration has said it "strongly objects" to the amendment because it would have an "adverse effect" on soldiers. Critics say the amendment could also allow for Christian proselytizing in the military.
"The president is very uncomfortable with religious freedom," Fleming said of the backlash.
The chaplains were also joined Tuesday by the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, which released a report detailing alleged instances of persecution of Christians in the military since 2005.
"We are here today to say: 'Not on our watch,'" said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. The push for military religious freedom has been met with skepticism in some quarters.
Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said he believed the press conference was largely intended to push for measures that would allow proselytizing in the military.
"They want their cake, and they want to push their cake in other people's faces, too," he said. Also critical was Mikey Weinstein, a controversial activist who heads the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and has pushed for greater separation between church and state in the military for years. The Family Research Council report named Weinstein as the chief culprit in pushing the military to tamp down religious freedoms.
"What they're asking for is a license to bully and oppress," said Weinstein of the press conference, "and a license for anyone to go to someone of lesser rank and proselytize a subordinate mercilessly."
This story has been updated with comment from the Pentagon.