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Military ministries: 1st Amendment threat addressed

WASHINGTON (BP) — The House Armed Services Committee has approved an amendment to ensure faith-based ministries can continue to serve America’s men and women in uniform.

“We need to level the playing field; we have a First Amendment and it says ‘the free exercise thereof,”‘ said Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., who introduced the amendment during an annual defense bill mark-up. “This rule affirms prior policy that faith-based organizations are no less eligible than secular organizations to deliver federally funded services.”

Nearly two years ago, President Obama issued an executive order barring federal contractors from considering sexuality and gender identity when making hiring decisions. The president and pro-homosexual advocates hailed it as a way to eradicate discrimination in the workplace, but the action had far-reaching implications that are still unfolding for faith groups working with federal agencies.

When the order is fully implemented, federally contracted groups will not be permitted to provide goods or services unless they promise not to discriminate against prospective homosexual and transgender employees during their private hiring processes.

For Christian ministries, hiring homosexual or transgender staff could compromise their work and biblical values, forcing them to either squelch their religious convictions or lose their federal contracts.

The amendment specifically pertains to contractors for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). The DOD hires outside contractors to provide programs for its service members and their families beyond what military chaplains can offer. Depending on the location, contractors provide family counseling, youth outreach, substance abuse assistance and even worship services.

The amendment passed out of committee 33 to 29, largely along party lines, in an April 27 vote and will now go to the full House for consideration in the coming weeks. It likely will face strong opposition.

Douglas Carver, a former U.S. Army chief of chaplains, told Baptist Press he is “fully supportive” of Russell’s amendment and that it “is essential due to the lack of clarity of the president’s 2015 executive order regarding new guidelines for beneficiaries of federally funded religious programs and activities.”

While admitting that he was “perhaps worst casing,” Carver stated in written comments, “Are we headed into an environment that will restrict service members from personal evangelism conversations and activities?”

Carver, the North American Mission Board’s executive director of chaplaincy, continued, “This amendment is critical to the success of the military’s religious support mission. Many of the military’s religious programs are limited in scope, especially for those military families living on bases outside of the continental United States. Historically, since the end of the Vietnam War, commanders and chaplains have regularly contracted with faith-based organizations to support the religious needs of their military families, including contract clergy, youth workers, religious education specialists and musicians.

“Currently, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), faith-based organizations contracted by the federal government have the freedom to recruit staff or volunteers who subscribe to their distinctive religious beliefs, practices or preferences. They may also refuse to employ or enlist individuals who violate or do not subscribe to their religious beliefs. The new executive policy potentially removes the RFRA buffer that protects chaplains, military members, Department of Defense civilians and their families from increasing governmental actions that ‘substantially burden’ their freedom of religious beliefs, practices and conscience.”

Ron Crews, a former Army chaplain and executive director of Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, said “the military is out there every day protecting our religious liberty; it only makes sense that we serve their faith needs while they serve us. This amendment is an important step to preserve the programs they rely on.”

When Russell introduced the amendment, several Democrats tried to strike it down, including the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who called it a move to allow any organization to discriminate against homosexuals.

Shortly after the amendment was affirmed by the committee, the nation’s largest pro-homosexual advocacy group echoed Smith’s concerns.

“Russell’s harmful amendment would strip away existing protections for LGBT workers,” said David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

In the HRC’s full statement, it claimed the amendment would allow sweeping, taxpayer-funded discrimination in an attempt to promote anti-homosexual and transgender, religious-based discrimination at the DOD.

Russell dismissed the outcry and said opponents want to spin the language to fit their narrative: “They want to make the case that this is for any government contract. That is a false premise. This bill is about religious freedom, and clarifying ambiguous language.”

Crews praised Russell for making sure the defense bill included the amendment.

“Ultimately, this is about our men and women who wear the uniform and serving their religious needs,” Crews said.