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Religion and the Military

The relationship between religion and the military has a long and varied history --whether it be Christians in the Air Force, Sikhs in the Army, Muslims or Buddhists in the Navy, or any combination thereof.  It involves not only the obvious military regulations, but also Constitutional interpretation, Supreme Court decisions, Congressional law, Presidential decrees, and more. 

Below are some of the more important references regarding both the current state and the history of the religion/military relationship.  Suggestions for additions or critiques are welcomed.


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Department of Defense

Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 1300.17, Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services.
10 February 2009 Updated with Change 1 22 Jan 2014
Primary document guiding all military services in their interactions with religion; replaced DoDD 1300.17Change 1 expanded apparently acceptable waivers (including beards and body art) and specifically protected religious expression.

Department of Defense Directive (DoDD) 1304.19, Appointment of Chaplains for the Military Departments.  (Government Site)
11 June 2004
Continues the educational and ecclesiastical requirements for appointing military

From Section 4:
It is DoD policy that the Chaplaincies of the Military Departments:
4.1. Are established to advise and assist commanders in the discharge of their
responsibilities to provide for the free exercise of religion in the context of military service as guaranteed by the Constitution, to assist commanders in managing Religious Affairs, and to serve as the principal advisors to commanders for all issues regarding the impact of religion on military operations...

Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 5100.73, Major DoD Headquarters Activities (Change 2)  (Government Site)
01 December 2007 (Change 2, 12 June 2012)
Identifies major DoD activities. 

Paragraph E3.2.26 defines a "DoD wide functional area:"
"Religious Affairs. Management of religious affairs, counseling, and related moral welfare activities."

Department of Defense Directive (DoDD) 5500.7-R, The Joint Ethics Regulation. (Government Site)
Change 7, 17 November 2011
Governing document guiding ethics in the Defense Department.

Includes discussion on endorsement, fundraising, preferential treatment, airline upgrades, receiving money from outside agencies, political activity, and other sometimes controversial topics.

General Order Number 1 (Iraq). (Government Site)
04 April 2009
This document was signed by the Commander in Iraq.  However, there is very little variation in General Order Number 1 throughout its history.

3.L. Prohibited Activities: Proselytizing of any religion, faith, or practice.

Joint Publication (JP) 1-05, Religious Ministry Support for Joint Operations.
09 June 2004
Sets doctrine and guidance for US Armed Forces regarding joint force religious support

"The First Amendment to the US Constitution specifies that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” This guarantee of the free exercise of religion is codified for the Armed Forces in Title 10, United States Code, sections 3073, 3547, 5142, and 8067, with the provision for the appointment of officers as chaplains in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The free exercise of religion for military personnel is further defined in additional sources, such as Department of Defense Directive 1300.17. Military commanders are responsible to provide for the free exercise of religion."

Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute
Official summary of all DoD accommodation requirements.

Air Force

Air Force Instruction 1-1, Air Force Standards
07 August 2012
Air Force culture instruction.

Of note:
"Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion...and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion...

Supporting the right of free exercise of religion relates directly to the Air Force core values...

You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own."

Air Force Instruction 36-2706, Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) Program
05 October 2010, Change 1 05 October 2011 (29 July 2004 Version)
Primary document guiding conduct and resolution of discrimination or harassment.

Of note, the revised AFI entirely deleted the chapter on religious accommodation.  Also, from paragraph 1.1.1:
"It is against Air Force policy for any Airman...to unlawfully discriminate against, harass, intimidate or threaten another Airman on the basis of...religion...Unlawful harassment also includes creating an intimidating, hostile working environment for another person on the basis of...religion...The use of disparaging terms with respect to a person’s...religion... contributes to a hostile work environment and must not be tolerated.."

Air Force Policy Directive 52-1, Chaplain Service
02 October 2006 (Previous 1999 Version)

Of note, from paragraph 3.4.2:
"Consistent with DoD and Air Force policy, chaplains adhere to the requirements of their endorsing religious organizations while providing for the spiritual and religious needs of all Air Force members, their families, and other authorized personnel."

Air Force Instruction 52-101, Chaplain Planning and Organizing
10 May 2005 (updated 14 March 2008) Chaplains will conduct services that are within the scope of their personal faith tenets and religious convictions.

4.1. The privilege of total confidentiality in communications with a chaplain is an essential component of the chaplain’s ministry. Privileged communication is protected communication...made either as a formal act of religion or as a matter of conscience.

Religious Guidelines
August 2005 Version (Superseded)
09 February 2006 Version (Rescinded by Act of Congress)
SECAF Guidelines Message

Chief of Staff Sight Picture
28 June 2005

"The expression of personal preferences to subordinates, especially in a professional setting or at mandatory events, is inappropriate."


OPNAV INSTRUCTION 1730.1E, Religious Ministry in the Navy
25 April 2012 (Old 1730.1D, 1730.1C, which was rescinded by Congress, 1730.1B)

From 4.b. on page 2:
"Commanders, shall develop and strengthen the moral and spiritual well being of the personnel under their command, and encourage and support chaplains in the performance of their duties."


Army Regulation 165-1, Chaplain Activities in the United States Army
03 December 2009 (2004 Version)

"The Establishment Clause forbids any governmental authority from mandating a religion or way of prayer...Chaplains are expected to advise the command on all matters pertaining to the free exercise of religion and to speak with a candor and urgency befitting the exercise of their religious duties...In maintaining the balance between the establishment and Free Exercise Clause, Army Chaplaincy functions are exempt from conversion to civilian structures."

Army Regulation 600-20, Army Command Policy
18 March 2008 (Change dated 12 September 2012)

Section 5-6 on page 42, "Accommodating religious practices," contains Army guidance on religious exceptions, exemptions, and other accommodations.

Army Regulation 601-210, Active and Reserve Components Enlistment Program
08 February 2011 (Change dated 12 March 2013)

Page 42, 4-15: "Conscientious objectors are persons who profess conscientious objections or religious convictions at time of application for enlistment that would restrict assignments and who desire to enlist as noncombatants."



Supreme Court and Judicial Decisions

While not all of these cases directly deal with religion in the military, each has contributed to the cultural and legal concepts under which the military must deal with religion, balancing the sometimes contradictory precepts of military members' free exercise without breaching establishment issues.

Abington v. Schempp, 17 June 1963
8-1 ruling that eliminated government-mandated Bible reading in public schools.

Notably, the decision also stated "There are certain practices, conceivably violative of the Establishment Clause, the striking down of which might seriously interfere with certain religious liberties also protected by the First Amendment. Provisions for churches and chaplains at military establishments for those in the armed services may afford one such example."  Even the dissenting opinion noted that a lack of a chaplaincy could violate a soldier's right to free exercise.

Allegheny County v. ACLU, 3 July 1989
Unusually worded decision defined the "endorsement test," which says an Establishment Clause violation is determined by whether non-adherents "feel like 'outsiders' by government recognition or accommodation of religion."

Anderson v. Laird, 18 December 1972 (DC Circuit Court)
Appellate court decision that ruled mandatory attendance of religious services by cadets at the three US military academies was unConstitutional.

Crowe v. Cobb County, 28 October 2008
Appellate court decision that upheld a lower court ruling saying a Georgia Commission's practice of opening with prayer was not unConstitutional.  Notably, it said it was not the government's place to "parse" the content of prayers. 

Engel v. Vitale, 25 June 1962
5-2 ruling struck down New York law requiring officials to start school day with prayer. One of the early cases in which government religious activities were restricted.

Goldman v. Weinberger, 25 March 1986
5-4 decision stating that the Air Force was not required to allow Jewish officers to wear a yarmulke.  Congress addressed this by altering the law allowing "neat and tidy" religious accoutrements (10 USC Sec 774).

Johnson v. Poway, 25 February 2010
District Court decision declaring that restricting "Judeo-Christian viewpoint" while allowing others violated the Establishment Clause.  Also includes significant citations of support for referencing God in government.

Katcoff v. Marsh, 1985, Second Circuit Court of Appeals
Held that the Army Chaplaincy did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.  It left open the question about whether the Chaplaincy was necessary in areas where military members had access to private sector religious support.

Lee v. Weisman, 24 June 1992
5-4 decision against graduation prayer.  Notably, the state can also not dictate the content of a prayer.  Often cited in reference to the military attempting to "restrict" the content of a military Chaplain's prayers.

Lynch v. Donnelly, 5 March 1984
5-4 ruling allowing Nativity display.  Listed many examples of our "Government's acknowledgment of our religious heritage," including Congress' addition of the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Marsh v. Chambers, 5 July 1983
6-3 vote permitted practice of beginning legislative session with prayer given by a publicly funded chaplain.  Frequently cited in reference to military chaplains.

Rigdon v. Perry, 7 April 1997, District Court
Chaplains were explicitly allowed to encourage their congregants to contact Congress; such actions were not considered political lobbying, which was prohibited for uniformed officers.

United States v. Seeger, 8 March 1965
Conscientious objectors and the necessity of a sincere "religious" belief.

Wallace v. Jaffree, 4 June 1985
6-3 decision invalidated Alabama moment of silence statute.


Applicable Legislation

National Defense Authorization Act of 2007 Press Release | House Version
House version stated, "Each chaplain shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain’s own conscience..." (p183).  The statement was removed in conference committee.

National Defense Authorization Act of 2013  
Included text protecting right to religious beliefs, which President Obama dismissed in a signing statement.

National Defense Authorization Act of 2014  
Proposed religious liberty wording was opposed by Obama administration.  An atheist chaplain amendment also failed.

"In God We Trust"
Coinage (US Treasury) | National Motto (36 USC Sec 302)

US Constitution

Article VI No "religious test" is allowed for any public office.

First Amendment
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Download copies of the Constitution from the National Archives.
Indexed version of Constitution available at Cornell University.

Declaration of Independence

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..."

"We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions..."

"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence..."

Read and download at the National Archives.


Homosexuality in the Military / "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Relevant Law:
Title 10, Subtitle A, Part II, Chapter 37, § 654

Department of Defense Policy:
DoDD 1332.14 Enlisted Administrative Separations
("Don't Ask, Don't Tell")

ADF Letter (Concern for Chaplains & Morality)



Other Relevant Issues

Complaints and Public Actions

Pentagon/Christian Embassy Controversy
Complaint (Weinstein) | IG Report | Commentary

Task Force Patriot "Salute to Heroes"
Complaint (AU) | Defense (ACLJ)

Department of Defense Lawsuits

Atheist Harassment Suit Against DoD (Hall v. Welborne)
Press Release | Lawsuit | Commentary | Case Law | Dismissal


Atheist Harassment Suit Against DoD (Chalker v. Gates)
Lawsuit | Amendment | Commentary | Motion to Dismiss | Response | Dismissal

Air Force Academy Religious Climate
Yale Report | Complaint | Investigation Report | Lawsuit | Dismissal

"The HQ USAF team found a religious climate that does not involve overt religious discrimination, but a failure to fully accommodate all members’ needs and a lack of awareness over where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs."

National Day of Prayer
US Law 36 USC Sec 119 | Lawsuit Ruling NDoP Unconstitutional
"The President shall issue each year a proclamation..."

Religious Freedom Day
US Law 36 USC Sec 119 | RFD Guide | Opposition (AU)
"The President shall issue each year a proclamation..

Public Expression of Religion Act HR 2679 (2006) (Not enacted)
Sought to prevent organizations from gaining attorneys' fees when they sued a government organization for allegations of religious establishment.

Political Activities
As much of the religion in the military often becomes a church/state debate (which is inherently a political issue), it is worth noting the military guidelines regarding political activities as a military member.

Air Force: AFI 51-902

Department of Defense: DoDD 1344.10


Military Papers
Military officers occasionally write papers as part of their Professional Military Education (PME). These papers are their own work, and do not dictate nor guide military policy.  They can sometimes make for a fascinating read, however.

"Strategic Implications of American Millennialism"

Brian L. Stuckert, Maj, US Army (2008)


"Constructing Religious Empathy in the US Military"

Jess W. Drab, Major, USAF (2008)


"The Greatest Threat...Spiritual Decay"

R.L. VanAntwerp, LtCol, US Army (1992)


God and Country

The latest in military Christian commentary & news.


Last Updated: 01/22/2014

Promoting Christian Officership and Religious Freedom in the Military

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