By Jeff Brumley
A June decision to remove Bibles from the U.S. Navy’s base lodging system was cheered by atheists. Now it may be evangelicals’ turn to celebrate after the decision was placed on hold last week pending further review.
But others say the dispute is just another example that the military, like other branches of government, faces greater challenges in an increasingly pluralistic society to accommodate religious belief without endorsing it.
“It’s a sign of the times,” said Gerald Hutchinson Jr., a retired Navy chaplain and the chaplaincy and pastoral care services manager for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “It’s a more complex, layered environment for the Navy.”
The latest layer came in March when the Navy Exchange, which oversees the Navy’s hotel network, received a complaint from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the military newspaper Stars & Stripes reported.
The atheist group said it has more than 20,000 members, including hundreds of veterans and activity-duty personnel.
Placing Bibles in the base hotel rooms — with no other religious literature provided — shows an unconstitutional bias toward Christianity, it said in a letter to the Navy.
So the Exchange ordered that Bibles be removed from rooms but also be available upon request to the civilians and retirees who usually frequent base hotels.
“By removing Bibles from Navy-run lodges, the Navy has taken a step to ensure that it is not sending the impermissible message that Christians are favored over guests with other religious beliefs or over those guests with no religion,” foundation staff attorney Sam Grover said on the organization’s website.
But religious conservatives got activated after learning of the decision. The American Family Association and the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty pressured the Navy to reverse course, Religion News Service reported.
And it worked.
“That decision and our religious accommodation policies with regard to the placement of religious materials are under review,” Navy Cmdr. Ryan Perry subsequently wrote in an email to Stars & Stripes. “While that review is under way, religious materials removed from Navy Lodge rooms will be returned.”
AFA President Tim Wildmon tempered celebration with a warning about “what secularists are doing inside the military: according to the group’s website. He added that “this reversal proves that those who believe in religious freedom can make a difference when we take action.”
But Hutchinson noted that the controversy surrounding the base hotels does not affect, under either decision, the access to religious literature that active duty sailors have during deployment aboard ships or overseas bases.
He added that base chaplains, who are charged with accommodating the spiritual needs of all sailors regardless of faith, do not oversee base hotels.
But Hutchinson said he can see the difficulty the Navy and other branches have trying to navigate the competing demands of a religiously diverse culture.
“Personally, I think if it’s in a drawer and you’re not interested in it, close the drawer,” he said. “But I do appreciate, as a former chaplain in the Navy, that we must not show partiality.”
A constitutional expert agreed that’s where the challenge is for government.
“Making religious materials available to servicemen and women, without promoting it, should be the goal and appears to be the focus of the discussion they are having — albeit under pressure,” said Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington.