US soldiers stand guard at the scene of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan/AP
By Bob Smietana, The Tennessean
Members of the military are free to share their faith as long as they don't harass others, the Department of Defense said in a prepared statement Thursday.
A Pentagon ban on proselytizing had caused an uproar in social media this week. Conservative activists claimed that service members could face court martial for talking about Jesus.
But a Defense Department spokesman said that evangelizing is allowed, as long as it is not disruptive.
"Service members can share their faith (evangelize) but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one's beliefs (proselytization)," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, in an email.
"If a service member harasses another member on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, or disability, then the commander takes action based on the gravity of the occurrence. Likewise, when religious harassment complaints are reported, commanders take action based on the gravity of the occurrence on a case-by-case basis."
Christensen said there are no plans to single out evangelical Christians for punishment, despite claims of activists.
"The U.S. Department of Defense has never and will never single out a particular religious group for persecution or prosecution. The Department makes reasonable accommodations for all religions and celebrates the religious diversity of our service members," he said.
Jon Wilke of Gallatin, who spent seven years in the military, said that none of his superiors ever tried to proselytize him. None of his fellow soldiers asked to convert.
Wilke said the only time faith came up is when he had questions about Christianity and he asked a fellow soldier about it.
He said talking about faith in the military should be allowed because of the Constitution.
"Members of the military don't check their First Amendment rights at the door when they join the armed forces," he said in an email. "They fight to uphold and defend the Constitution for all Americans regardless of faith (or no faith)."
The Rev. Steve Estep, pastor of Grace Church of the Nazarene in Clarksville, said most of his church members have served in the Army. He feels that the military is becoming less tolerant of Christian points of view.
Estep thinks some activists would like soldiers to keep their faith to themselves and was concerned the policy could affect religious freedom.
"There is a difference between freedom of religion and freedom from religion," he said.
The Air Force introduced new rules about faith last year, warning leaders about using their position to promote their religious beliefs. Leaders of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation met with the Pentagon last week to complain that evangelical Christians were being too aggressive in sharing their faith.
The Pentagon wants to protect the religious freedom of members of the military but wants to be sure they can also focus on the mission, said Christensen. "We work to ensure that all service members are free to exercise their constitutional right to practice their religion - in a manner that is respectful of other individuals' rights to follow their own belief systems; and in ways that are conducive to good order and discipline; and that do not detract from accomplishing the military mission," he said in an email.