No Evangelizing At Recruiting Sites
December 28, 2008McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
The Pentagon is cracking down on evangelizing at its national network of recruit processing centers, telling religious groups that it won't permit proselytizing at the sites.
A new regulation quietly distributed last month to commanders of the 65 centers says that religious literature and publications produced by other "non-federal entities" may be made available to recruits at the sites but that they cannot show favoritism to any particular faith or group.
"Under no circumstances " will any outsiders "be permitted to proselytize, preach or provide spiritual counseling" to recruits or staff members at the centers, the regulation adds.
Also barred are publications that "create the reasonable impression that the government is sponsoring, endorsing or inhibiting religion generally," as well as secular publications such as "sales flyers or commercial advertising."
The action comes amid complaints from civil liberties groups that some ministries have targeted the centers for their evangelizing and on occasion have tried to gain an advantage among recruits by tying themselves to the military. The civil libertarians argue that such church-state ties are barred by the U.S. Constitution but that some evangelicals routinely try to skirt the rules.
The centers run by the Military Entrance Processing Command are the last stop for recruits on their way to basic training. The newcomers get a final physical exam and take the oath of office as members of the armed forces. Recruits from Hampton Roads typically go through the center at Fort Lee, near Petersburg.
Jeremy Gunn, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer whose warnings to the military apparently sparked adoption of the new rules, said a recruit at the Louisville, Ky., processing center complained about being approached by a representative of The Gideons International, a group best known for providing Bibles in hotel rooms around the world.
The ACLU subsequently learned about evangelizing activities at as many as 10 other centers, including some in which recruits were handed religious tracts during their processing "as if it were part of official, military-sanctioned procedure," Gunn said.
In at least one case, copies of the New Testament were distributed with khaki covers, suggesting the book was a military publication, he added.
The Gideons organization provides copies of the New Testament for distribution at the Fort Lee center, its commander, Army Maj. Carl Faison, confirmed Tuesday.
But the group has never sought anything more than making its materials available, Faison said, and gets no more access than he would provide to any outside group that requested it. So far, only the Gideons group has asked for permission to distribute literature at the Fort Lee center, he added.
Steve Smith, a Gideons spokesman, confirmed that the group routinely distributes Bibles and copies of the New Testament at the recruit processing sites. He declined to comment on the new Defense Department rules but said Gideons don't engage in proselytizing.
The Gideons' activities are "part of a broader pattern within the military, of allowing outside groups easier access to evangelize," said Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that monitors religion in government.
Other religious groups have been active at processing centers. Until last spring, when he got word that the military was reviewing its policies on activity by outsiders, Army veteran and former police officer Tim Sherman was making weekly trips from his Minnesota home to the center in Fargo, N.D., to speak and distribute religious literature to new recruits.
He'd resume the Fargo trips if invited, Sherman said, and would have no objection if other groups, religious or secular, also sought to distribute material to the recruits.
Sherman is director of "In PURSUIT," a group described on its Web site as providing "biblical chaplains" to police, fire departments, emergency medical service workers and the military. The Web site indicates other members of the ministry have been active at other recruit processing centers.
Laurel Williams, a Florida lawyer and major in the Army reserve, said she stumbled into In PURSUIT earlier this year while doing online research on invocations at military ceremonies. She was shocked to find a photo of Sherman wearing camouflage fatigues during a visit to the Los Angeles processing center, she said.
"I find this very disturbing. In my view these people are impersonating military officers," Williams said. She turned her research over to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a group in New Mexico that has sued the military several times to challenge what it says are improper ties between evangelicals and some commands.
"It's not possible to regulate this stuff," said Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force academy graduate who started the foundation. The Obama administration should simply ban distribution of any religious materials at the processing centers, he said.
Weinstein's son was a cadet at the USAF Academy and was hounded by fellow cadets who made it their mission to go after other cadets who were not "christian" or right wing religious zelots.
Do you think this is just the tip of the iceberg or should it be taken further?