Religion in the Military


                                                                Israel Drazin


One of the concerns of the founders of our country, and probably one of the most important, was the protection of personal liberties, and of these, the right to practice one’s religion as one sees fit was one of their greatest concerns. This right is carefully protected in all parts of our culture except in the military.

The right to believe as one chooses and to practice one’s religion unhampered is enshrined in the very first of the Bill of Rights which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is this second phrase, prohibiting the government from interfering in the “free exercise” of religion that protects the right of people to believe and practice a religion of their choice.

The Supreme Court of the United States addressed the issue of the limits of this protection. The court was very restrictive. It said that the only time that the government can infringe upon the individual’s free exercise of religion right is when there is a “compelling state interest.” And the court went even further. The court said that even if there is a compelling state interest, the government can only invade and stifle a person’s religious right to the extent of removing the danger to the state interest. Thus, simply stated, the US Supreme Court said that the right to practice one’s religion is so fundamental to the concept of US democracy and so sacrosanct to individual rights that people must be allowed to practice their religion as they see fit, and the government may only stop them if there is a clear, provable, severe danger to society, a “compelling state interest.”

Remarkably, although this restrictive rule pervades all parts of US society, the US Supreme Court has allowed the American military to trample this rule.

All services of the military restrict the religious rights of service personnel under a totally different standard, “military necessity.”

For example, when the Army found out that Mormons wear a special religious undergarment, one that cannot be seen under a uniform, it thought that it would forbid Mormons from wearing the garment. Note, and this is the point, there is no “compelling reason” for doing so. The Army would have not fallen apart if Mormons wore this undergarment. No one would be hurt except the Mormons. Yet when the Army thought it would prohibit the wearing of this garment, those who advocated the prohibition argued that there was a “military necessity” for doing so: if different soldiers wore different underwear, the morale in the unit would be affected. True, said the military, this is not compelling, but we have a need to prohibit the garment, and our identification of a need, no matter how small or how absurd is sufficient to squash the right of Mormon to observe their religious practice. This is a true story. It occurred in the 1980s. I was able to stop it.

Another example, some military chaplains in the 1980s refused to allow Muslims to have a room in the chapel in which the Muslims would lay their carpets and pray. They said that this was an abomination. Their misguided view could be upheld under the weak “military necessity” standard, but not the “compelling state interest” standard. I was able to stop this. I also introduced the idea that Muslim clergy can serve as military chaplains.

Still another example, the military, still today, forbids Seiks from joining the military because they have beards. Like the underwear story, the military argues that allowing some people to wear beards, even though this is a religious requirement, would cause other service personnel to complain and say why can’t I have a beard also. Although I served on a congressional-mandated committee to decide if this rule was rational and although I fought for the rights of the Seiks, I was not successful.

At first blush, one can argue that the military needs a softer approach, an approach so soft and so vague that the military can do as it chooses when it wants to do so. An argument can be made that the danger of disrupting the military could cause a threat to our country. But this argument is deceptive. It is an insufficient reason for allowing the military to do as it chooses to hinder the religious rights of its service personnel.

A similar danger exists in prisons, yet the courts have used the restrictive “compelling state interest” standard in prisons and not the weak permissive “prison necessity.” For example, a prisoner was allowed to worship the sun even though his worship required the prison to give him certain special privileges.

Also, the “compelling state interest” standard is sufficient to protect the military and the United States. If the military is able to show that it is “compelling” to disallow Seiks in the military, they should be disallowed. But if the reason for the disallowance is only “military necessity,” that the military is afraid the allowance may affect morale, the military should not be allowed to forbid the entry of Seiks into our Armed Forces.

We need to remember that until the 1940s this same “morale” excuse was used to exclude blacks from being integrated into the forces. Granted there was some agitation in certain areas when the integration first started, but people now see that segregation is wrong and integration is right.

Thus, I suggest that we persuade to get the military to accept the “compelling state interest” standard, and stop the military from hindering the rights of individuals from practicing their religion except when there is a provable danger to the military and our country.