A group of sixty-six U.S. Republican lawmakers have accused the U.S. Air Force of nurturing “a culture that is hostile toward religion.” In response, the Air Force has asserted that service members maintain the right to exercise their religion freely so long as they respect the rights of others. Situations like these are often complicated and nuanced, but it is important for ULC wedding officiants and other ministers ordained online to contemplate the difference between religious freedom and religious imposition. Where should we draw the line between the two, and should wedding ministers be defending the Air Force’s stance on religion in the military?
The GOP House members made their accusation in a letter they wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in which they asked him to investigate whether recent Air Force incidents are restricting religious freedom. In their letter, the lawmakers listed several concerns they had over Air Force policy, including a memo last year from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, which stated that “chaplains, not commanders” should mention chaplains’ religious programs to airmen and women. The memo, argued the lawmakers, was “suggesting that the mere mention of these programs is impermissible.” They also criticized the removal of Bibles from Air Force Inn checklists, the suspension of a briefing that discussed Bible references, and the altering of a Latin office motto that mentioned God, arguing that separation of church and state is having a “chilling effect” within the military hierarchy. For nondenominational wedding ministers, it is a question which deserves thoughtful reflection: are the lawmakers’ concerns valid, or exaggerated?
But, as wedding officiants and ordained ministers, we must also consider the perspective of Air Force personnel, who have defended their position on religious paraphernalia and proselytizing in Air Force operations. In response to the lawmakers’ criticism, an Air Force spokeswoman stated that airmen and women were “free to exercise their constitutional right to practice their religion — in a manner that is respectful of other individuals’ rights to follow their own belief systems” and “in ways that are conducive to good order and discipline; and that do not detract from accomplishing the military mission.” She added that the Air Force is “dedicated to creating an environment in which people can realize their highest potential without any consideration of one’s personal religious or other beliefs.” So, again, we wedding officiants need to ask ourselves, is the Air Force really overstepping its bounds?
We can see several problems with the lawmakers’ critique. First, it is inaccurate to claim that mere mention of religious programs is “impermissible.” The memo did not suggest that mentioning such programs was impermissible–it merely stated that chaplains, not commanders, should advertise such services. If chaplains are permitted to do so, clearly it is permissible. Furthermore, airmen and women are perfectly free to use their own Bibles if they wish–the military need not supply or promote such products–and, finally, omitting mention of God in an office motto in no way restricts the free exercise of religion for Air Force service members. It begins to look as though the GOP is suffering from a religious persecution complex. That said, we’d like to know what our ordained ministers and wedding officiants think. Are GOP lawmakers throwing a tantrum because they can’t get everything they want?