Secular Coalition Voices Concerns about McHugh Nomination


Representative
John McHugh

Aug. 3 update: McHugh hearing provides one positive response on prohibiting proselytizing, but written responses indicate that additional education is necessary. Read more »

Today the Secular Coalition for America sent a letter to the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee voicing their concerns about President Obama's nomination of Representative John McHugh to serve as Army Secretary. The letter urges Senators on the committee to question McHugh during confirmation hearings on his  unwillingness to address the coercive religious climate in the military. The full text of the letter is as follows:

June 27, 2009
The Honorable Carl Levin
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Chairman Levin:

As Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, you have been entrusted with reviewing President Obama's nomination of John McHugh as Secretary of the Army. The Secular Coalition for America asks you to consider questioning Mr. McHugh on how he, as Secretary of the Army, would prevent some evangelical Christians from perpetuating discrimination based on religion, coercive proselytizing in everyday activity, and an overall culture of religious intolerance against those who do not share these beliefs.

The Secular Coalition for America is concerned that Mr. McHugh's past record in the House of Representatives indicates an unwillingness to improve our military's policies that relate to religious proselytizing and discriminatory practices. Specifically, in 2005 Mr. McHugh voted against an amendment to a Defense Appropriations bill1 that would have required the Secretary of Defense to report to Congress on progress made in addressing the proselytization of cadets. The amendment would have made "clear that coercive and abusive religious proselytizing at the Air Force Academy is inconsistent with the professionalism and standards required by those who serve at the Academy."

Moreover on June 19, 2009 when asked about an article that appeared in the American Prospect questioning his willingness to improve the religious climate in the military, Mr. McHugh said that the article does "not a merit a response."2 He then added, "As in all matters, I look forward to responding to any area that the Senate may deem appropriate." Since Mr. McHugh is not willing to address our concerns in the media and has stated that he will only respond to questions or concerns from the Senate, we ask you to please question Mr. McHugh about his vote in 2005 and how he would improve the religious climate in the military.

Attached are a few examples of proselytizing and religious discrimination in the military that have been written about by the media. No service member deserves to be harassed or discriminated against because of his belief system; please ensure that Mr. McHugh will improve the lives of all service members by prohibiting harassment and discrimination on the basis of religion.

Thanks,

Ron Millar

Associate Director


1. H. Amdt. 328 to H.R. 2863. June 20, 2005.
2. "Heller, Marc. Atheists Fault McHugh's Record." Watertown Daily Times. June 19, 2009.


Questions from Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) during confirmation hearing on July 30, 2008 of Rep. John McHugh to become the next Secretary of the Army

REED:
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

I want to welcome the nominees and just say I think the president has chosen very wisely. It's a privilege to work with Congressman McHugh in many issues and Dr. Westphal as a former official in the Department of the Army and comes back with great insights and great experience.

And, Mr. Garcia, thank you for your service and look forward to your service in the -- in the Department of the Navy.

Congressman McHugh, one of the traditions at the service is respect for the individuals' demonstration of their faith and -- which is very important. Essentially, that's why they're chaplain corps. But part of that is ensuring that, you know, there is not an attitude preferential to one denomination versus another, preferential to one set of beliefs to another, consistent with the Constitution. And I wonder if you have any comments on that.

MCHUGH:
Thank you, Senator. And thank you for your kind comments. My understanding is every chaplain who goes into the service has a prime directive. And that is in -- in those instances where it's far likely that there are multi-denominational attendees the chaplain must be sensitive to -- to the nature of that -- of that assemblage. And therefore, do everything necessary to keep away from proselytizing, give a general blessing, whether that's a deployment -- deployment ceremony or some other variant.

It does allow them, of course, in their regular duties on a Sunday if it's a Catholic chaplain providing mass or the Shabbat services and temple for Jews or in the -- in the mosque for Muslims. But when -- when you have a general assemblage, they must be sensitive and -- and -- and not fit -- not make comments that would be offensive to others in that assemblage.

I -- I can't imagine our ever changing that. Certainly, in my opinion, any chaplain who does not adhere to that needs to be admonished and instructed as to their primary responsibility.

REED:
I've -- I agree with you. I found also, too, that the chaplains play a very critical role in informally counseling soldiers, not in any sort of denominational way, but as a source of information -- the commanders as a source of support for troops. And it's a very important role.

MCHUGH:
Yes, sir.


Written responses from Rep. McHugh regarding religion questions

[Full document (.pdf) is at http://armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2009/July/McHugh%2007-30-09.pdf.]

Religious Guidelines

152. What is your understanding of current policies and programs of the Department of Defense and the Department of the Army regarding religious practices in the military?
At this time I do not have a sufficiently detailed knowledge of the current policies and programs, but it is my belief that whatever policies are in place must be consistent with the First Amendment protections afforded to all Americans.

153. Do these policies accommodate, where appropriate, religious practices that require adherents to wear particular forms of dress or other articles with religious significance?
At this time I do not have a sufficiently detailed knowledge of the current policies and programs, but it is my belief that whatever policies are in place must be consistent with the First Amendment protections afforded to all Americans.

154. In your view, do these policies accommodate the free exercise of religion and other beliefs without impinging on those who have different beliefs, including no religious belief?
At this time I do not have a sufficiently detailed knowledge of the current policies, but it is my understanding that Army policies require chaplains to support all unit personnel, regardless of their beliefs.

155. In your opinion, do existing policies and practices regarding public prayers offered by military chaplains in a variety of formal and informal settings strike the proper balance between a chaplain’s ability to pray in accordance with his or her religious beliefs and the rights of other service members with different beliefs, including no religious beliefs?
At this time I do not have a sufficiently detailed knowledge of the current policies and programs, but it is my belief that whatever policies are in place must be consistent with the First Amendment protections afforded to all Americans.

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