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NEWS | March 24, 2015

Religious Freedom and Accommodation in Today’s Military

By Capt. Christopher Love Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Religious freedom and accommodation--few subjects raise greater questions than these for our diverse society. And although we in the military wear a common uniform and adopt the same core values, we feel the weight of these questions just as strongly as our civilian counterparts.

Can I show signs of my faith in the workplace? What can I say, and to whom, and when. Where is the line separating policy from mere political correctness?

These questions are hard enough, but for the military leader they become even harder.

How do I exercise my freedoms of expression without violating the freedoms of those I lead? How accommodating can I be toward my subordinates' beliefs without compromising the mission, or good order and discipline, or both?

If you're like me, you struggle with these questions. How grateful I was, therefore, to learn that I need not navigate this subject alone.

On March 18, 2015, I attended the first of what may become an annual course for Joint Base Charleston leaders on religious freedom and accommodation. Hosted by the base Chapel, Judge Advocate and Equal Opportunity offices, the course offered guidance for commanders, senior enlisted members, civilians and others, like myself, looking for trusted counsel amid the storm of controversy on this topic.

Our hosts presented us with a 13-question quiz on various issues having to do with religious accommodation. The quiz assessed our knowledge of whether service members can have religious items in their workplace, for instance, the proper use of mass emails, or which Air Force Instructions offer guidance on these topics.

They then walked us through the true-or-false assessment, question by question, gauging leaders' thoughts and presenting realistic scenarios, before offering the correct answer. What emerged was a highly interactive and challenging 90 minutes that began to clear the waters on an otherwise murky subject.

Reflecting afterwards on the course, I emerged with the following insights.

First, as a leader, there is a tension between my right to live out my religious convictions in the workplace, on the one hand and the equal rights of my subordinates, on the other. This does NOT mean that I must "lock up" what I believe for 10 hours a day--can any of us really do that?--but it does mean that I must be mindful of the rights of others, especially those I lead, who may feel obligated to listen to what I say.

Second, I must analyze each situation carefully, resisting "blanket" solutions. Does that piece of religious insignia in the workplace really suggest government endorsement? It might, depending on the size, manner and location of its placement; but then again, it might not. Does the discomfort of certain coworkers toward such a symbol offer sufficient grounds for that symbol's removal? We need discernment in these cases.

Third, along with discernment, we need fairness. As one of our hosts said, can I really tell one service member that he cannot listen to his music aloud while permitting his coworker to play gangster rap? Why not establish an office policy requiring the use of headphones? This is just one of many examples.

Fourth, and most importantly, I am not alone. As an Airman, I have the resources of documents like AFI 1-1 to guide me. Additionally, I have people--chaplains, lawyers, Equal Opportunity members--to help lead me through the myriad of particular cases.

I left my recent course feeling both encouraged and grateful for the resources around me. I hope this course does indeed return next year and that it spreads beyond Joint Base Charleston, to the benefit of all.