Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Military Bans Pulpit Politicking Lawsuit Challenges Gag Order as Unconstitutional

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Military Bans Pulpit Politicking Lawsuit Challenges Gag Order as Unconstitutional

Article excerpt

The Pentagon has issued new orders to its chaplains: the pulpit is no place for politicking.

A gag order placed on military chaplains this summer - forbidding the discussion of legislation during sermons or counseling - is being challenged in a lawsuit filed by a coalition of Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim chaplains, and military personnel.

The case, slated to be heard in Washington federal district court next month, pits the rights of free speech and religious liberty against a federal law that forbids lobbying by government employees. It also marks the first time that military chaplains have been told under threat of prosecution what they can preach. The gag order was prompted by the Roman Catholic Church's "Project Life Postcard Campaign." During June 29 and 30, priests nationwide implored parishioners to petition Congress to override President Clinton's veto of the now defeated so-called partial birth abortion ban. To head off the campaign within the military, each armed services branch issued memoranda in May setting limitations for appropriate speech and political activities for its employees. The memo cited the anti-abortion effort as an example of forbidden activity. "There is no more chilling instance of government infringement on religious liberty than the government censoring what can or cannot be said from the pulpit," says Kevin Hasson, general counsel of the Washington-based Becket Fund, a bipartisan, ecumenical public interest law firm, that is representing the plaintiffs. Observers note that previous cases involving the role of religion in public life turned on interpretations of the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which outlaws the mixing of church and state. But in a 1985 case before the Second Court of Appeals in New York, Katcoff v. Department of Defense, the constitutionality of chaplains in the military was challenged and upheld. The court ruled that given the duties and often remote locations service members find themselves in, without chaplains, it would be almost impossible - especially during war - for service members to have access to religious mentoring, a situation that would impinge on their Free Exercise right. …

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