In my last column I discussed the historic roots of freedom of religion in the United States. In this one I will focus on one less-well-known organization that is doing critical work to protect a specialized group within our country – those who serve in our armed forces. First a bit of explanation is in order.
Because the military is rigidly structured and highly controlled, and because trust and cohesion within units is essential to the safety of service people, some forms of religious expression that would be perfectly acceptable among a civilian population must be curtailed during military service. For example, service personnel of higher rank are not permitted to proselytize among those of lower rank. The reason is simple. Obedience to the commands of those of higher rank is mandatory and absolute. Within such a power structure, for an officer to “suggest” to enlisted personnel that they attend a particular religious event or engage in a specific religious activity is inevitably coercive.