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Friday, February 11, 2011

Military Personnel and Freedom of Religion: Selected Legal Issues

R. Chuck Mason
Legislative Attorney

Cynthia Brougher
Legislative Attorney

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides the freedom to individuals to exercise their religious beliefs without governmental interference, and simultaneously prohibits government actions that benefit followers of one faith over another. At times, when government actions would otherwise burden individuals’ religious exercise, the government makes efforts to accommodate the religious practice. However, accommodation of religion to prevent violations of the Free Exercise Clause must be carefully considered in order to prevent violation of the Establishment Clause.

The tension between the clauses has been illustrated in a number of military scenarios in recent years. For example, the U.S. Army recently allowed the first Sikh in more than 25 years to graduate from the officer basic training program without sacrificing the articles of his faith, allowing the officer to maintain his unshorn hair and beard and to wear a turban. In another example, legislation enacted in December 2010 that has provided a process for the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexual servicemembers to be repealed has raised several questions about the impact a new policy would have on chaplains whose religious background does not support homosexuality.

This report provides an overview of the requirements of the First Amendment related to military personnel’s religious exercise. It analyzes current constitutional and statutory requirements regarding religious exercise, and provides a framework for how Congress and the courts might consider future issues that arise related to servicemembers’ religious exercise. Specifically, the report examines the limitations placed on servicemembers in uniform in the exercise of their religious beliefs. It also examines the role of military chaplains and the legal challenges associated with publicly funding religious personnel. The report analyzes efforts by Congress and the Department of Defense to address the constitutional concerns that are raised by these issues.

Date of Report:
February 1, 2011
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: R41171
Price: $29.95

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