Thursday, September 21, 2006

NY Times & Washington Post Editorials on Defense Authorization

The New York Times

Keep Christ Out of the Christmas Tree

Taxpayers may find it hard to believe that the must-pass $500 billion defense budget could be held hostage to a mischievous amendment empowering evangelical chaplains to speak in the name of Jesus at nonreligious military gatherings. But that is the case in Congress, where hard-right Republicans have held up passage of the defense bill in an attempt to license zealot chaplains to violate policies of religious tolerance at secular ceremonies.

Despite the firm opposition of the Pentagon and ecumenical chaplain groups, House Republicans have been defending this egregious pro-evangelical thumb on the scale in negotiations with the Senate.

We expect the Senate, mindful of the nation’s multidenominational legions fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, to reject the fine-print travesty. At its heart is religious intolerance - not respect of chaplains’ consciences - and a naked attempt to elevate evangelical beliefs to primacy in the ranks. These very abuses caused a scandal at the Air Force Academy two years ago after cadets complained that ranking officers tolerated evangelical chaplains’ proselytizing and discriminating on campus.

Proponents hope to exploit the urgency of passing the defense bill - part of the annual attempt to make a "Christmas tree" of the measure by weighting it with nonessential favors for political patrons. Another controversial amendment aims at allowing war veterans to introduce hunting to a pristine part of the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California. A spokesman for Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, said the proposal would "preserve the herds" and provide veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan with "the experience of a lifetime." Surely the Senate will oppose such a wacky exploitation of veterans as just another sop to the gun lobby.

Defense conferees who were truly conscientious would act to control predatory insurance salesmen at the gates of military bases. And they would force the Pentagon to end its awarding of unearned "bonus" payments to favored defense contractors. Government investigators found the Air Force’s F-22A Raptor plane 20 months late and 42 percent over budget, yet contractors reaped $849 million in bonuses.

Voters should wonder what in the name of (fill in deity) is going on in Congress.


The Washington Post

Unneeded and Divisive

Let us pray that Congress stops meddling with military chaplains.

Page A24

"UNNECESSARY and likely counterproductive." That's what a major interest group had to say Tuesday about a provision that has snarled completion of the defense authorization bill. The provision -- contained in the House version but not in the Senate-passed measure -- would permit military chaplains to offer explicitly sectarian prayers at public events. But that negative assessment, and the call on congressional negotiators to drop the amendment, didn't come, as you might assume, from the usual separation-of-church-and-state types. Rather, it was contained in a letter to lawmakers from the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. "At this time, our country needs no legislation in this area," the Rev. Haggard wrote. He is right.

The House provision has been pushed by some evangelical ministers who contend that new Air Force and Navy guidelines violate the rights of chaplains whose faith requires them to pray in the name of Jesus Christ when they offer public prayers. It would guarantee chaplains "the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain's own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible."

We respect the chaplains' convictions about the demands of their faith. But we are also concerned about having such sectarian prayers at events that military personnel of other faiths, or no faith at all, are compelled to attend. No one disputes that chaplains are free to pray as they wish, and as their religion demands, at private, voluntary services. The argument is about what rules should govern religious speech at public, nonreligious events. In fact, as the Defense Department explained in stating its opposition, the military's "present insistence on inclusive prayer at interfaith gatherings" is more conducive to "unit cohesion."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) went to the Senate floor Tuesday evening to make clear his opposition to including the amendment in the defense bill. Instead, Mr. Warner said that lawmakers should hold hearings at the start of the next Congress and that in the interim the military should suspend enforcement of the new guidelines.

Mr. Warner deserves credit for his efforts to get the amendment out of the authorization bill. But the better resolution of this complicated and divisive issue would be for Congress to stay out of it and leave the matter in the hands of the military services. In the long run, the best resolution would be not to drain prayer at public ceremonies of specific religious content but to discourage prayer at such events as inherently and unnecessarily divisive.


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