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Carver tells congressional panel of concern over military’s religious freedom climate

WASHINGTON (BP) — Retired Gen. Doug Carver, who oversees Southern Baptists’ chaplain ministry, noted concerns about “growing ignorance, insensitivity or intolerance regarding matters of religion” within the U.S. military to a House subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Jan. 29.

The hearing regarding religious accommodation in the U.S. military drew a large crowd, including several Southern Baptist congressmen.

Current military leaders testifying at the hearing held that no substantiated instances of religious discrimination have taken place recently in the military, and that military chaplains of all faiths are free from any undue influence in matters of faith practices or conscience.

But even if substantial instances have not occurred, Carver pointed toward a climate that is creating a more restrictive faith environment. A winter storm in Atlanta prevented Carver from attending, but his written testimony was entered into the record.

“I am concerned about the perceived tension, misinformation and suspicion regarding an individual’s free exercise of religion and conscience while serving as a member of the Armed Services,” Carver stated in testimony he submitted. Carver, a former Army chief of chaplains, is executive director for chaplaincy at the North American Mission Board.

Other witnesses at the Religious Accommodation in the Armed Services hearing included Virginia Penrod, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy; Brigadier Gen. Bobby Page, deputy chief of chaplains, U.S. Air Force; Brigadier Gen. Charles R. Bailey, deputy chief of Army chaplains; and Rear Admiral Upper Half Mark L. Tidd, chief of Navy chaplains.

During her testimony, Penrod said a recent teleconference with approximately 30 line chaplains revealed no religious freedom threats. She said command chaplains have not expressed any concerns.

“They have communication with their chaplains, and their chaplains are not concerned regarding the free exercise or expression of their faiths,” Penrod said, adding that the sampling of chaplains on her teleconference believe if they do encounter issues that those would be handled appropriately.

Carver acknowledged the military’s history of religious freedom protection.

“It was my personal experience of 38 years as a commissioned Army officer that the military placed the highest value on ensuring the religious liberty of our troops,” Carver said. “The Department of Defense has historically, although sometimes too lengthy and cautiously, taken extraordinary measures to approve religious accommodation…. Our troops, and most Americans, understand the tension that exists between the religious needs of a service member versus military necessity.”

A number of House members addressed the hearing as well, including four who are members of Southern Baptists churches, Alan Nunnelee of Mississippi and Vern Buchanan, Doug Collins and Austin Scott, all of Georgia. House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, R.-Calif., also attended the hearing.

Nunnelee expressed concern over the reported activity taking place at military briefings held by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, saying that anti-Christian statements were made during some of those briefings. Penrod said she had no reports of such statements and would have to investigate to give a proper answer for the record.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R.-Ohio, a combat surgeon veteran of the Iraq War and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said, “There is a fine line between accommodation and respecting all religions and restricting religious freedom and that’s the line we are walking on here.”

Response to the hearing prompted subcommittee chairman Joe Wilson, R.-S.C., to call for an additional hearing on the matter within the next 60 days.

Matthew Hawkins, coalition director for the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, attended the hearing and said it went “fairly well, considering the complex issue and limited time.”

“I believe the subcommittee sees a need for further hearings,” said Hawkins, who helps foster collaboration with likeminded groups on issues of law and public policy. “We do not want the federal government imposing decisions of faith on anyone, and definitely not on members of the military.

“There is much agreement that using a position of authority, such as a commanding officer’s, to attempt to push someone into a faith decision is equally unacceptable,” Hawkins added. He said he’s interested to see where the conversation goes and whether “inappropriate proselytizing” will ever be sufficiently defined. The display of a religious text on an officer’s desk, Hawkins said, certainly should not be defined as inappropriate.

To view a video of the full hearing, read Carver’s complete testimony or find more information from the hearing, visit http://goo.gl/GnPhXb. To learn more about Southern Baptist chaplaincy, visit www.namb.net/chaplaincy.
Joe Conway writes for the North American Mission Board. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Joe Conway