The Military Maneuvers Its Way Toward More Respect For Religious Diversity

My late father was drafted into the Army at the tail end of World War II. With action in Europe and the Pacific winding down, he was shipped to the emerging hotspot of Korea. He once told me a story about how chaplains on the transport ship would announce religious services: Catholics were told to go to one side of the boat and Protestants to the other.

“What about the soldiers who were neither?” I asked.

My dad shrugged. “I guess nobody thought about them.”

Thankfully, things have changed for the better in the military since then. Respect for religious diversity is on the upswing, and lots of folks say it’s high time.

Military officials announced recently that the service is nearly doubling its list of recognized religions. Several nature-based faiths have been added, and some of the beliefs that the military is recognizing aren’t theistic at all – Humanism, for example.

Religious and philosophical diversity is growing in the military.

The change comes after a decade-long push by Humanist leaders to win recognition for their beliefs. As Religion News Service reported recently, the Army recognized Humanism in 2014, and the recent changes extend that to all branches of the military.

The new policies will affect established groups as well. In the past, Jewish men and women serving in the armed forces could list their faith only as “Jewish.” Now they will able to choose between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform branches.

These alterations don't just give soldiers more options for dog tags. Members of faiths (or philosophies) listed on the military’s recognized list find it easier to request time off for religious holidays, attend religious events off base and keep religious items in a barracks. The ability to sponsor chaplains is another benefit.

The list is not perfect. Some faiths are still omitted, and many of us who advocate for separation of church and state are wary of anything like a government-issued list of “approved” or “recognized” religions. A list like that implies that religions not on it are somehow not legitimate. That’s no decision for government to make.

There are ways to deal with that. Ten years ago, Americans United assisted Roberta Stewart, a Nevada woman whose husband, Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart, was killed in action in Afghanistan on Sept. 25, 2005, after his Chinook helicopter was shot down. Patrick Stewart practiced Wicca, and his widow wanted to add the symbol of that faith, the pentacle, to his grave marker.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs balked at the request, so AU went to court on Stewart’s behalf. Once the legal papers were filed, VA officials quickly realized they would lose and agreed to settle out of court. The pentacle was added to the VA’s list of approved symbols for headstones and grave markers.

There’s still work to be done to bring full diversity and inclusion to the military, but the recent changes are a big step in the right direction. Here’s hoping our armed forces continue to march toward respecting the rights of all service personnel, no matter what they believe (or don’t believe) about God and religion.