DESERET NEWS – New legislation seeks to affirm religious freedom in military

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  • Michael Handman had been at basic training in Georgia for less than a month when he sent a letter home to his parents with a frightening message. Handman, who was 20 at the time, said he was being persecuted because he is Jewish.“I have just never been so discriminated against, humiliated about my religion,” he wrote his parents in the 2008 letter, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I just feel like I’m always looking over my shoulder. Maybe your dad was right … the Army is not the place for a Jew.”Reports of religious intolerance, ranging from harassment like Handman experienced, to the removal of a menorah and nativity scenes from a California Air Force Base in December 2011, are part of what motivated Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to write legislation to protect the religious freedom of those serving in the military.

    The National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law Dec. 26, 2013, by President Obama, calls on the U.S. military to accommodate “individual expressions of belief,” a step further than the previous version of the act, which was interpreted by some to stop short of allowing soldiers to speak freely about his or her faith without recrimination.

  • For Handman, the new NDAA law comes too late. Five years ago, the private was called derogatory names because of his faith, ordered to remove his yarmulke and rebuked for reading Jewish canon. Then, a few days after his letter home, on Sept. 24, 2008, Handman was lured into a laundry room and beaten to the point of unconsciousness, an Associated Press story says.Handman was later transferred to another unit for his own protection, and the soldier who attacked him was discharged, but some say the conditions of the incident — a ritualistic military culture that favors Evangelical Christianity — never changed, and similar discrimination continues today.
  • When the soldier was at his lowest point of discouragement, he contacted Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Weinstein, former legal counsel in the White House under Ronald Reagan, a registered Republican and retired Air Force officer, replied to the soldier’s email within 20 minutes.Weinstein is a controversial advocate for religious freedom for members of the armed forces. His organization has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize six times, but groups like the Family Research Council refer to Weinstein as anti-Christian.When Weinstein’s foundation became involved, a nativity scene was removed from the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station this Christmas, a painting with a Bible verse was removed from an Air Force Base in Idaho and the anonymous soldier’s superiors were fired.

    Weinstein blames religious intolerance in the military on a “Christian Taliban” of “fundamentalist Christians” run amok.

    “They’re now saying, ‘We are the ones being victimized, we are now the prey,’ when they were the predators,” Weinstein recently said from his office in New Mexico. “We see (that religious persecution) is more vicious, more violent, more stealthy and more pronounced.

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