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Battle Brewing Over Military Chaplains

Christian conservatives in Congress are expected to renew their fight to allow military chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus at public events, contending that existing practices infringe upon basic religious freedoms.

They lost a battle last week to push through legislation that would have allowed military chaplains to publicly lead groups in sectarian prayers. The language was championed by conservatives who say service policies are so restrictive that chaplains cannot invoke Jesus's name when praying in public, including over a dead soldier on the battlefield.

Military chaplains often lead groups in prayer outside private religious services, but omit references to any particular religion. Opponents have said allowing specific religious references during public military prayers could be divisive.

Debate on the legislation came just weeks before the Nov. 7 elections and was seen by critics as a last-ditch effort by conservatives to cater to religious voters, who can often sway election outcomes. Critics also say the language could cripple U.S. efforts to win the "hearts and minds" of Muslims in the Middle East by painting the American military as evangelizing Christians.

Rep. Walter Jones and other conservatives who supported the legislation say their proposal is not intended to allow evangelizing within the military.

"This is about a First Amendment right" to free speech, said Jones, R-N.C., in an interview Monday.

Jones and Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., said pushing legislation next year to lift religious restrictions on chaplains would be a focus for them if re-elected.

"The Navy and Air Force regulations that we are striking prevented chaplains from praying according to their faith and conscience, whether they were Muslim, Christian, Jewish or of any other faith," said Akin.

House conservatives led by Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, tried last week to attach language to a defense policy bill that would have allowed chaplains to pray "according to the dictates of the chaplain's own conscience." But their efforts were blocked by John Warner, R-Va., Hunter's counterpart in the Senate, who said he wanted more time to debate such a measure.

Warner and Hunter, R-Calif., who negotiated the final defense bill, agreed to drop the provision but added another one asking the Navy and Air Force to rescind their policies aimed at increasing religious sensitivity.

The agreement was seen by Jones and other conservatives as a small step in their favor, but did not go far enough to clarify what chaplains can and cannot say at public events.

Mikey Weinstein, a graduate of the Air Force Academy who sued the Air Force for acts he said illegally imposed Christianity on its students, called the agreement "red meat" thrown to religious conservatives just before the elections and a forecast of what was to come.

"We know the religious right will come back twice as hard in January," said Weinstein, who started the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

Democrats have largely opposed the measure and could try tightening restrictions to prohibit "proselytizing" of service members if they gain control of Congress next year.

"The battle ahead will be to work with the military on a new set of guidelines that reflect America's mainstream values and ensure good order and discipline on our military bases," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y.

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