Religious discrimination in the military

A 2004 report on religious preferences of military personnel conducted by the Population Reference Bureau found that 21% of service members identified as Atheists or as having ―no religion.(1) The report also revealed that 35% identified as Protestants, 22% as Catholic/Orthodox, 11% as ―Other Christian‖ and less than .5% as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu. Despite data indicating that one-out-of-five U.S. service members identify as ―atheist‖ or as ―having no religion, nontheists serving in the armed services are frequent victims of religious discrimination and coercive proselytizing.

The problem of coercive proselytizing in the military came into public view in 2005 when a report(2) was released showing that officers, faculty and cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs promoted evangelical Christian beliefs and displayed insensitivity towards and harassed cadets who practiced a different religion or who chose to practice no religion at all.(3)

In the last five years, major news outlets have reported at least twenty separate incidents in which military personnel have been harassed, discriminated against and coercively proselytized; The New York Times alone has published seven articles detailing the problem of military proselytizing in various branches of the military, including at military academies. Also widely reported has been the unethical appearance of seven high-ranking, uniformed military officials in a video promoting ―The Christian Embassy, a group that evangelizes among military leaders, politicians and diplomats in Washington. Two of the officers (Gen. Robert Caslen and Col. Lucious Morton), although reprimanded by the Department of Defense’s Inspector General for their participation with this evangelical project, were later promoted.(4)

The Rise of Evangelical Associations in the Military

Organizations like the Officers Christian Fellowship (OFC), The Military Ministry of the Campus Crusade for Christ, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), and the Christian Military Fellowship (CMF) encourage soldiers to proselytize as their primary mission in the military. A representative mission statement is at the official OFC website. OCF states, “Our purpose is to glorify God by uniting Christian officers for biblical fellowship and outreach, equipping and encouraging them to minister effectively in the military society.”

They intend to transform the “entire military society” into one that is a “community of believers with a passion for [a Christian] God and compassion for the entire military society.”
They also “call on Christian officers to integrate biblical standards of excellence into their professional responsibilities.”
They think that “local or ship-based chapel activities offer prime venues for Christ-centered outreach and service to a military community. OCF acknowledges the chaplain’s responsibility for and authority in local Command Religious Programs. Thus, we support chapel-sponsored and workplace ministry activities through prayer, encouragement, and participation. By cooperating with and assisting chaplains and lay leaders, we seek to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ throughout the entire military society.”
The OCF operates in almost all our military bases worldwide and counts 15,000 US military personnel around the world as members.(5) This organization is dedicated to co-opting military resources and personnel to market Christianity, and its president, MG Robert Caslen, was recently reprimanded for inappropriately promoting religion through his participation in the Christian Embassy video.

Subordinate/Superior Relationships

Federal law requires everyone who enlists or re-enlists in the Armed Forces of the United States to take the enlistment oath. In this oath, military personnel pledge ―to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution states that religion cannot be used as a qualification for public service and that our government can neither neither advance nor inhibit religion.

Despite this oath to the Constitution, assignments and promotions based on religious membership rather than merit have occurred,(6) as have endorsements of religion.(7) In addition, there are reports that military leaders have worked in conjunction with the military chaplaincy in coercing soldiers to attend religious services, and encouraging them to abide by religious laws or proselytize to their fellow soldiers.(8)

The military command structure gives officers, including chaplains, wide latitude in defining insubordination, determining punishment and recommending promotions. It is our belief that service members in all branches learn early, from the moment they begin the enlistment process which includes establishing religious affiliation, that open nontheism is discouraged by the military hierarchy. We also know of cases in which attempts to report violations are met with bureaucratic runarounds and top-down pressure to abandon the complaint. Therefore, among our first policy recommendations is the establishment of effective mechanisms for reporting discrimination, harassment and proselytizing.

The Role of Chaplains

Men and women serving in the military have the right to worship or not worship as their conscience demands, and the chaplaincy guarantees the free exercise of that right. The role of the chaplain is both to ensure that service members are able to practice their religion, and to improve the morale of soldiers.(9) More than 3,800 military chaplains serve in the US armed forces. The largest of the services, the Army, recognizes 120 endorsing bodies—religious organizations that sponsor chaplains. Military chaplains are appointed as commissioned officers with rank and uniform but without command. On bases and ships, during deployment and at all times, chaplains are attached to commanders, working as close advisors in terms of morale and the religious climate, which gives them a special status within the chain of command.

According to the only federal court decision directly dealing with the military chaplaincy’s constitutionality, Katcoff v Marsh, “the primary function of the military chaplain is to engage in activities designed to meet the religious needs of a pluralistic military community.” Army chaplains are hired to serve military personnel “who wish to use them,” the Court observed; they are not authorized “to proselytize soldiers or their families.”

Given the chaplains’ mandate to serve a religiously pluralistic population, it is unacceptable for them to advance any one religion or religious philosophy over any other, including monotheism over other types of theism or nontheism. They are also forbidden to compel a member of the United States Armed Forces to conform to a particular religion or religious philosophy or compel anyone to witness or engage in religious exercises.

Chaplains are first and foremost officers in the U.S. military. Too often, however, chaplains fail to intervene in cases of subordinates being ostracized, harassed, denied promotions or threatened with physical violence by others in their unit for religious reasons,(10) or when those who hold no god-belief are coercively proselytized.(11) Chaplains have reportedly tolerated disparaging remarks about belief systems, including the statement ―there are no atheists in foxholes,(12) and allowed commanding officers to deny privileges to nontheists that are routinely available to religious members of the armed forces, such as meeting passes.(13)

Chaplains’ Knowledge and Resources Problem
The military has failed to ensure that chaplains are knowledgeable about religions other than their own; for example, there is no education in religious diversity during the twelve week Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course and it is rarely taught in the seminaries from which chaplains graduate.(14)

Chaplains without insight into beliefs other than their own are ill equipped to counsel service members with other beliefs or to provide materials or referrals to organizations that speak to their beliefs. This is especially discriminatory in the case of nontheistic personnel: in the absence of training in philosophies such as humanism, atheism and agnosticism (or Buddhism, pantheistic religions or Wiccan, for that matter), chaplains may conclude that references to ―God that do not specify a deity such as Allah or Christ, are adequately inclusive – but that is not the case.

The Secular Coalition urges the Pentagon to improve religious accommodation practices in the military by:

vetting new apointments and promotions to ensure that appointees are committed “to fostering a secular military that protects the religious liberty and freedom of conscience of our soldiers.”
issuing a new directive that would require all military branches to update their regulations with regard to promoting religion over non-religion, proselytizing, discrimination and the role and training of chaplains.
conducting a Survey of Military Personnel in order to determine the pervasiveness of the problems of religious discrimination and proselytizing.
establishing a Commission for Religious Accommodation charged with, among other things: creating effective channels for reporting failures to accommodate religious and nonreligious service members’ beliefs; investigating such failures and ensuring corrective actions are taken; reporting annually to Congress on complaints; recommending improvements in training and regulations; and ensuring diversity among the chaplain corps that represents the diversity of the military.


(1) Segal, David R. and Mady Weschler Segal, ―America’s Military Population,‖ Population Reference Bureau, Vol. 59, No. 4., December 2004.

(2) Headquarters, United States Air Force. The Report of the Headquarters Review Group Concerning the Religious Climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy. 22 June 2005.

(3) ibid

(4) ―Controversy in Appointment of New Commander‖ May 5, 2008. Honolulu Advertiser.

(5) ―US military accused of harboring fundamentalism.‖ 13 Feb 2008.

(6) Hall v. Welborn, No. 08-2098 (D. Kan. Mar. 5, 2008)

(7) US military accused of harboring fundamentalism.‖ 13 Feb 2008.

(8) Headquarters, United States Air Force. The Report of the Headquarters Review Group Concerning the Religious Climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy. 22 June 2005.

(9) Katcoff v. Marsh (755 F.2d 223, 2nd Cir. 1985)

(10) Hall v. Welborn, No. 08-2098 (D. Kan. Mar. 5, 2008)

(11) Headquarters, United States Air Force. The Report of the Headquarters Review Group Concerning the Religious Climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy. 22 June 2005.

(12) Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers ―Report on Chaplains.‖

(13) Headquarters, United States Air Force. The Report of the Headquarters Review Group Concerning the Religious Climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy. 22 June 2005.

(14) Phone interview. 10 October 2008 with staff at Chief of Chaplain Corps.


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