Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Military Religious Freedom Group Attacks Religious Freedom in the Military

Unbelievable.  From the Indianapolis Star:
The head of the Indiana National Guard says he made a video promoting an evangelical Christian group because it helps soldiers who struggle with their marriages after coming home from war.
But a military watchdog group says Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, the Guard's adjutant general, violated military rules and the First Amendment by promoting a religious group in the 33-second video while in uniform.
Major General r. Martin Umbarger
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, based in Albuquerque, N.M., sent a letter to the National Guard Bureau on Thursday asking that Umbarger be investigated and punished. Former Air Force attorney Mikey Weinstein founded the group, which seeks to guarantee religious freedom in the military.   
The issue, Weinstein said, is that Umbarger's message promotes one religious group over others. In the military, Weinstein says, such a show of support from a two-star general is intimidating. 
"He should be removed immediately," Weinstein told The Indianapolis Star on Monday, "and, from our perspective, court-martialed."
Umbarger made the video in September 2011 on behalf of Centurion's Watch, a Christian group based in Indianapolis that offers marriage counseling to military families. It was posted on the nonprofit's website.
The Star article goes on to quote a couple military attorneys, both with ethics background, who offer reasonable observations that he shouldn't have done the endorsement video while in uniform but it was a fairly innocuous mistake in judgment.

Then the Star article turns to Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School.  Fidell called for Daniels to dismiss Umbarger saying that:
"Even if he had been wearing his birthday suit, I'd have a problem because he has a very limited function," Fidell said. "Everybody knows he's an adjutant general. He's not a clergyman, he's not a chaplain, he's not the head chaplain for the National Guard. It's just utterly wrong and utterly against the neutrality that a state agency should be displaying."
Obviously Fidell doesn't teach constitutional law.  A person, because of his employment, does not lose his free speech and free exercise or religion (that other religion clause in the First Amendment that people like Weinstein regularly ignore) rights.

In the 1947 Everson case, the Supreme Court rewrote the until then understood meaning of the First Amendment Establishment Clause to reflect its modern meaning - that government cannot endorse or promote a particular religion or religion over non-religion.  That clause has to be balanced with the Umbarger's rights under the Free Exercise Clause, which requires that government accommodate his religious beliefs.  Then you also have the Free Speech Clause which protects Umbarger's right to speak.

Bottom line is that Umbarger should not have done the video while in uniform because that can appear as government endorsing religion.  But Umbarger has every right to endorse whatever religious group he wants to endorse when he takes off the uniform, contrary to what some uninformed Yale law professor thinks.

Umbargers' violation deserves a slap on the wrist, certainly not court-martialing.  That someone purporting to represent "religious freedom" would take this position shows what this is really about - an attack on religious freedom.


varangianguard said...

Paul, I agree that a court-martial may be out of place here, but it isn't a kangaroo court by any means. Just because a soldier is court-martialed doesn't mean he/she is guilty of anything, nor does it necessarily mean the end of a career.

Still, being a general means that one is required to follow the military code of conduct and giving props to religious organizations isn't on that list.

And, do you really expect that Governor Daniels would remove him from command at this point? I find that concept laughable.

As to your constitutional issue. Had he been in civvies and said, "Hi, I'm Marty Umbarger, Bargersville feed dealer, and I want to talk up so-and-so for military families", that would have been OK. He didn't.

Downtown Indy said...

It always infuriates me when zealots manage to leap from one person simply having an opinion or belief to somehow 'offending' or 'oppressing' everybody else.

Why gays in the military are permitted to wear their uniforms and espouse THEIR opinion or belief is beyond me. Seems like the same deal but they are lauded for speaking up.

varangianguard said...

Generals are different. It goes with the territory.

Paul K. Ogden said...


You're wrong on that. By that logic, he wouldn't be able to go to Church, because whatever the Church he goes to could be considered an "endorsement" of a religion. Fortunately the courts haven't gone that far. Even Generals have Free Speech/Free Exercise of Religion rights. If government tries to squelch those rights, even by a General, there are consequences.

varangianguard said...

Well, you've gone and done it now.

So, I reviewed the U.S. Armed Forces Officer Handbook.

Long story made short(er), and I loosely quote here.

Officers have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution and Laws of the U.S. Important to be Responsible, Accountable and Disciplined to the above, plus a lenghty list of other requirements.

Officers are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

As officers of a secular republic with a constitution madating religious neutrality the leader must walk a careful line. He or she must be sensitive to the needs of all of their subordinates' spiritual needs without promoting or denigrating any or none.

Officers as leaders must know what services are available for spiritual comfort and know how to gain access to them for their subordinates.

Those last two are where General Umbarger tripped up on. While he should be wholly cognizant of the services offered by the organization he was filmed touting, he should not have been touting any one service in particular outside of the military community (on openly available videos). In that sense, he has failed to uphold his oath as an officer in the U. S. Armed Forces. As a political creature (as all generals must be), he should have exercised better judgement here. For example, would he have filmed a video blurb for a Wiccan military family support organization? That is something only he could answer, but I think not. Is this something he should be removed from command for? Well, while that is up to the Governor, my opinion is yes, per the requirements set forth when one takes an oath as an officer in the U.S. Armed Forces (which by the way does supersede your example of being free to act while out of uniform - look it up if you don't believe me, since I was also wrong on this point). In point of fact, I agree with the Governor's assessment that this was one of his best appointments, which were few and far between. And, since I cannot see where Governor Daniels would be able to see the fine distinctions presented by General Umbarger's actions, I certainly don't believe that he will rescind this appointment during his final months in office (which is just politics in action).