church-state issues

Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Try to imagine the media storm if the following drama ever took place under the hot glare of television lights in a U.S. Senate hearing.

So a Muslim believer who has been nominated for a cabinet-level post is taking questions. A Bible Belt senator asks: "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?"

Or perhaps a senator from a New England state -- say Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- asks the nominee: "Do you think Christians who believe in the Holy Trinity will be condemned because they reject the oneness of God?"

Ismail Royer knows what would happen if he faced those questions. He would defend one of Islam's core doctrines.

"I believe Jesus was a prophet of God, but not God himself," said Royer, who works at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. "I'd have to say that worshipping Jesus alongside God amounts to polytheism and is a rejection of the one God. There is no way that I could apologize for what I believe as a Muslim."

A purely hypothetical case? Not after a recent confrontation during a U.S. Senate budget committee hearing on the nomination of Russell Vought to serve as deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Sanders questioned a Vought article about a Wheaton College controversy, in which a professor made headlines with her claims that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As a former Wheaton professor, Vought argued that salvation was found through Jesus -- period.

Thus, Sanders said: "You wrote, 'Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son and they stand condemned.' Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?"

The nominee repeated his defense of this ancient Christian doctrine. Sanders kept asking if Vought believed that Muslims "stand condemned."

Once again, Vought said: "Senator, I'm a Christian …"

British rabbi stands to defend America's first freedom

When Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks arrived in America recently representatives of the United States government did not greet him with a demand that Great Britain's former chief rabbi remove his yarmulke while in public. That's a good thing. But there are places -- France leaps to mind -- where this would not be the case. In fact, religious liberty is under siege in many corners of Europe, said Sacks, a member of the House of Lords.

"In Britain we have seen a worker banned from wearing a small crucifix at work," he said, after receiving the Becket Fund's 2014 Canterbury Medal for his work defending religious freedom. "A nurse was censored for offering to utter a prayer on behalf of one of her patients. Catholic adoption agencies were forced to close because they were unwilling to place children for to same-sex parents."

Elsewhere, Denmark has banned "shechitah," the kosher method of slaughtering animals by slitting their throats. A German court has banned infant circumcision. France has banned -- in public places -- Christians from wearing crucifixes, Jews from wearing yarmulkes and Muslim women from wearing hijabs.

"This is, for me, the empirical proof that ... the secular societies of Europe are much less tolerant than the religions that they accuse of intolerance," he said.

Fights among Catholics, with the IRS picking a side

There is nothing particularly unusual about conservative Catholics arguing with liberal Catholics, especially when it comes to hot-button issues such as abortion. It is unusual, however, for the IRS to jump into these pew wars.

Catholic sociologist Anne Hendershott is convinced that's what happened to her in 2010. This was during the time when IRS leaders, according to their own testimony, were inappropriately targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny, especially those with "patriot" or "tea party" in their names. Also, some religious groups -- the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, for example -- drew challenges after making public efforts to defend their beliefs on issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

"I don't think the IRS cares about the Catholic Church's position on life," said Hendershott, who teaches at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Instead, the agency's leaders "care about passing Obamacare, because the health-care program gives the IRS tremendous power. ...

"Anyone who threatens that growth is an enemy to them. Anyone who tries to point out that Obamacare provisions for funding abortion are counter to Catholic teachings is a threat."

Hendershott has engaged in her share of debates about Catholic doctrine and public policy, primarily in the pages -- analog or digital -- of conservative publications such as Catholic World Report, InsideCatholic.com and Catholic Advocate. Then, in the fall of 2009, she wrote a Wall Street Journal piece critical of Catholic groups -- both official and unofficial -- that she believed were serving as "faithful helpers" for President Barack Obama's health-care plan.

"Drawing upon support within Catholic community agencies is a strategy that worked well for Mr. Obama when he was running for president," she wrote. "Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United tried to neutralize the abortion issue during the campaign by suggesting that Mr. Obama's proposals on 'social justice' issues like poverty were the way to reduce abortion rates without restricting abortion rights.

"Now personnel from these organizations are playing a role in enlisting Catholic support for health-care reform."

The following spring, an IRS agent called to say she would be audited. This didn't surprise Hendershott very much, until she heard that the government was especially interested in whatever income she had earned from non-academic work. When the requests for documentation arrived, almost all of them focused on deposits linked to her freelance articles and speaking engagements.

Hendershott immediately thought about the Wall Street Journal piece, especially since it reached a much larger audience than her many articles written for small publications targeting Catholics. The "faithful helpers" piece also linked some liberal Catholic activism to groups funded by billionaire George Soros, an atheist known for his opposition to official Catholic beliefs and causes.

During their face-to-face meeting in New Haven, Conn., the agent never asked questions about the "politics" of anyone who funded her writings, stressed Hendershott. Instead, she was repeatedly asked to name the groups or individuals who provided any stipends that had been deposited into the family's bank account.

In one twist, the agent was especially interested in knowing the source of one large deposit -- for $12,000 -- during the period of time being investigated. This was rather ironic, said Hendershott, since that was a refund check from the IRS itself.

The bottom line, she said, is that writers don't make much money when they are writing for small Catholic publications. Most of the documents she was ordered to provide indicated that she received no payments at all.

On one level, these kinds of disputes usually pivot on points of doctrine, with Catholic organizations -- including giants such as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Catholic Health Association -- arguing about how best to apply Catholic social teachings in the muddy realities of public life.

Seen from the government's point of view, said Hendershott, the key is that some Catholics back the goals of the administration that is in power, while others do not. For the IRS, doctrine is secondary.

"I believe that is why I became the enemy" in this case, she said. "I cannot think of another reason that I would have been audited. So, I do believe the IRS is protecting itself by picking sides. ...

"Businesses try to get rid of the competition. The IRS just tried to silence the opposition -- or the competition to their growth model."

Into the depths of USA's church-state Inferno

IRS Commissioner Steven Miller was already having a rough day at the House Ways and Means Committee when one particularly hot question shoved him into the lower depths of a church-state Inferno. The question concerned a letter sent by IRS officials in Cincinnati to the Coalition for Life of Iowa, linked to its application for tax-exempt status.

"Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational," said the letter, which was released by the Thomas More Society, which often defends traditional religious groups.

"Organizations exempt under 501(c)(3) may present opinions with scientific or medical facts. Please explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings. Also, please provide the percentage of time your organizations spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization."

Welcome back to the religious liberty wars of 2013, in a scene captured by the omnipresent eye of C-SPAN.

Questioning this government entanglement in issues of doctrine and even worship, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) asked: "Would that be an inappropriate question to a 501(c)3 applicant? The content of one's prayers?"

Miller, already on his way out as IRS leader, had stressed he would not address individual cases. Thus, he replied: "It pains me to say I can't speak to that one either. ... Speaking outside of this case, which I don't know anything about, it would surprise me that that question was asked."

IRS officials have, of course, confessed that they inappropriately targeted conservative groups -- especially those with "tea party" or "patriot" in their names -- for extra scrutiny when they sought non-profit status. Allegations of abuse or harassment have since broadened to include groups conducting grassroots projects to "make America a better place to live," to promote classes about the U.S. Constitution or to raise support for Israel.

However, it now appears the IRS also challenged some individuals and religious groups that, while defending key elements of their faith traditions, have criticized projects dear to the current White House, such as health-care reform, abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

At the heart of these fights are questions often raised about a variety of groups on the left and the right. Was it partisan politics when African-American churches worked to promote economic justice, during campaigns when those efforts helped President Barack Obama? What about liberal religious groups that stressed voting green on environmental issues, during campaigns when those efforts often led to support for Democrats?

In recent years, religious conservatives have been accused of turning projects linked to their teachings on abortion and marriage into vaguely partisan efforts to oppose Obama, while indirectly supporting his opponents.

Thus, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the global Samaritan's Purse humanitarian project faced IRS review -- for the first time ever. During the most recent White House campaign, the Graham organization ran adds against gay marriage in North Carolina. In one, the elder Graham was quoted saying: "I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.”

In a letter to Obama, the Rev. Franklin Graham claimed: "I believe that someone in the administration was targeting and attempting to intimidate us. This is morally wrong and unethical -- indeed some would call it 'un-American.' ... I do not believe that the IRS audit of our two organizations last year is a coincidence -- or justifiable."

Meanwhile, on the religious left, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is convinced that the younger Franklin is -- no coincidence at all -- drawing justifiable scrutiny because of "his disgust with President Obama."

While the Graham ads didn't mention politicians by name, this was "clearly an effort by one of the Graham families' tax-exempt groups to directly affect the outcome of the election, he argued, in the "On Faith" forum at The Washington Post website. "If this brazen action led to IRS scrutiny, I'm fine with that. My only regret is that the agency didn't yank the BGEA's tax-exempt status for doing so.

"The problem isn't that the IRS is being too aggressive in this area. It's that its enforcement efforts have been sporadic, unfocused and tepid."

Parents, circumcision and the law

At first, it seems strange for Christians to jump into the firestorm surrounding the Nov. 8 ballot initiative in San Francisco to ban circumcisions. After all, the issue of whether gentiles had to be circumcised when converting to Christianity was -- literally -- settled in the age of the apostles. Nevertheless, the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco quickly went public with his views on this hot-button issue.

"As a religious leader I can only view with alarm the prospect that this misguided initiative would make it illegal for Jews and Muslims who practice their religion to live in San Francisco -- for that is what the passage of such a law would mean," stated Archbishop George Niederauer, in an letter to the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Apart from the religious aspect, the citizens of San Francisco should be outraged at the prospect of city government dictating to parents in such a sensitive matter regarding the health and hygiene of their children."

However, the letter the editors published directly beneath the archbishop's openly stated -- in bitter, satirical terms -- the anger behind this effort to limit the religious freedom of parents on this highly personal question.

A reader in San Francisco suggested that readers be polled on this question: "Should government allow parents the right to remove functional tissue from their children when there is no immediate medical need?"

Citizens could then choose one of the following answers.

"A. No, it violates the rights of the individual child.

"B. Yes, the parents' religion might demand human sacrifice.

"C. Yes, children have no rights, not even to their own body parts."

No doubt about it, a growing number of modern Americans are convinced that it's time for government officials to do some cutting and snipping in the pages of the holy books that define some of the world's major religions.

"What you have here is an assault, by a popular referendum, on a central ritual in a recognized ancient religion," noted Marc Stern, associate general counsel for legal advocacy at the American Jewish Committee. While the current initiative may seem brazen, "it's really nothing new. It's easy for historians to find sources showing how the Greeks and Romans mocked the Jews for practicing circumcision."

So far, the most shocking twist in this ballot-box drama has been provided by "Foreskin Man," a comic book produced by strategists in this campaign against "Male Genital Mutilation," a phrase crafted to echo global efforts to ban female genital mutilation. The star of these books is a stereotypically Aryan superhero who protects children from the "Monster Mohel," a bearded villain wearing all of the distinctive garb of an Orthodox Jew.

The introduction notes: "Nothing excites Monster Mohel more than cutting into the penile flesh of an eight-day-old infant boy."

It is easy, noted Stern, to focus on the stark implications of this initiative for Jews and Muslims, for whom circumcision is a defining rite of faith and identity. If passed, the San Francisco measure would make circumcision on male minors a misdemeanor crime punishable by a $1,000 fine or a year in jail. A similar ballot measure was recently withdrawn in Santa Monica, Calif.

In the end, he said, the upcoming vote should be seen as part of a trend in which increasing numbers of activists are focusing attention on limiting parental rights, even when parents are making decisions that involve religious liberty.

"We live in an age in which it is common for mainstream scholars in mainstream schools to produce entire books arguing that the state should prevent parents from sending their children to parochial schools," he noted.

"The theme that runs through all this is the conviction that parents must yield to what society thinks is best for their children, even in matters of faith. ... These cases keep coming up and all kinds of religious believers are starting to realize that."

Thus, it was not surprising that the National Association of Evangelicals released a statement joining those released by Jews, Muslims and Catholics in opposition to the ballot initiative and in defense of the broader First Amendment issues linked to it.

"Jews, Muslims and Christians all trace our spiritual heritage back to Abraham. Biblical circumcision begins with Abraham," noted the Rev. Leith Anderson, the group's president. "No American government should restrict this historic tradition. Essential religious liberties are at stake."

Return of (part of) the chaplaincy story

Editor's note: There was no "On Religion" column this past week due to the death of Terry Mattingly's mother, Berta Geraldine Mattingly, in Texas. The following post originally ran at GetReligion.org ****

It seems that we are going to see more mainstream coverage of those debates about religious liberty, military chaplains and Don't Ask, Don't Tell." So let's back up and note a few basic fact, some of which were handled quite well in that CNN.com report that I praised the other day in the post called, "Chaplain questions older than DADT."

As that title implied, I wanted to note that church-state questions about military chaplains are not new.

The military powers that be have been arguing for a long time about doctrinal and legal issues linked to public prayers, God talk, preaching, evangelism/proselytism and a variety of subjects. Tensions between the traditionalist camp and what the oldline-Universalist-progressive camp are not new. It's much harder for an evangelical, charismatic of Anglo-Catholic Episcopal priest to lead a wide variety of vague rites that mesh with various other traditions than for a liberal Episcopal priest to do that same. It's easier for a Reform rabbi to function in a state-funded religious environment than it is for a Southern Baptist, a Missouri-Synod Lutheran or an Eastern Orthodox priest (to name a few examples).

These hot-button issues almost always revolve around public expressions of doctrine, as opposed to silent, private beliefs.

When looking at DADT, however, the current state of things clearly affects the left as well as the right. As mentioned in the GetReligion comments pages, clergy in religious groups that favor DADT repeal have had their hands tied in public ministries to gays and lesbians in the military.

However, the must crucial question is not whether many doctrinal traditionalists will have to leave the military if DADT is repealed. The real question is whether many will leave rather than face punishment for public or even one-on-one expressions of their religious beliefs. Thus, it was important that the CNN.com story included this crucial slice of the Pentagon DADT report:

Despite the fact they would not pull their endorsements for chaplains, "A significant portion of the respondents did suggest that a change in policies resulting in chaplains' free exercise of religion or free speech rights being curtailed would lead them to withdraw their endorsement," the report said.

Or, as Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America put it in a letter to the chaplains board:

"If our chaplains were in any way ... prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as 'prejudice' or the denunciation of homosexuality as 'hate language,' or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service."

So there is much more to this story than what happens if DADT is repealed. The question is how DADT repeal (or the continuation of the policy) will affect the ministry of military chaplains -- liberal and conservative -- and the rights of the soldiers that they serve -- liberal and conservative.

This brings us to the new story on these issues in the Washington Post, which adds some useful information on the point of view of liberal clergy, such as:

The Rev. Dennis Camp, a retired Army colonel, said it pained him when gay soldiers came to him to complain of the burden they felt from keeping their sexuality a secret. They could not display pictures of their loved ones or talk freely about their personal lives, he recalled. But he could not encourage them to be honest about their orientation, he said.

"They were forced by the situation, the system, to be dishonest, and that took its toll on them. And me," said Camp, a United Methodist minister who retired in 1996 after 27 years of service. "It was horrible. Right from the beginning I was saying, 'This is bad. This is wrong. It really has no place in our military community.' "

Yet in the paragraphs immediately before these lines, the Post framed the debate in the following manner:

The authors of the report noted that only three out of the 145 chaplains who participated in focus groups suggested that they would quit or retire if the law was changed. Many chaplains expressed opposition to repeal, while many others said they would not object, according to the report.

"In the course of our review, we heard some chaplains condemn in the strongest possible terms homosexuality as a sin and an abomination, and inform us that they would refuse to in any way support, comfort, or assist someone they knew to be homosexual," the report stated. "In equally strong terms, other chaplains, including those who also believe homosexuality is a sin, informed us that 'we are all sinners,' and that it is a chaplain's duty to care for all Service members."

Once again, repeal is not the ultimate issue for the leaders of traditional religious groups. The issue is hidden in that phrase "care for all Service members." Does "care" equal acceptance of homosexual activity? For example, I cannot imagine many traditional clergy actually saying that they would "refuse to in any way support, comfort, or assist someone they knew to be homosexual."

Really? Did the Pentagon offer any direct quotes from chaplains expressing those views, or is that an official bureaucratic interpretation of what women and men said in these interviews? What is the legal content of those words "support," "comfort" and "assist"?

The Post report does offer the following information from someone who is worried about protecting the rights of clergy who advocate traditional views on sexuality issues.

Many conservatives worry that lifting the policy would muzzle chaplains whose religions require them to preach against homosexuality. The Rev. Douglas E. Lee, a retired Presbyterian Air Force chaplain and brigadier general who now counsels and credentials chaplains, said chaplains generally point out their views on homosexuality before counseling a service member on that issue. He worried that military policies may prohibit even that level of conversation if "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed, even though Pentagon officials have not recommended any change to the policy governing chaplains' behavior.

"There's a strong possibility that a chaplain wouldn't be allowed to proclaim what their own faith believes, and not give people the information they need to be a good Christian or a good Muslim or what have you," he said. "If there's no protection for the chaplain to be able to speak according to his faith group, that might affect the number of chaplains we recruit or our ability to do our duty for the troops."

Once again, note the following inserted -- but valid -- commentary noting that Lee made these comments, "even though Pentagon officials have not recommended any change to the policy governing chaplains' behavior."

That's true, although the Pentagon would find itself involved in court cases challenging those policies. Where are the crucial decisions being made, these days, on these kinds of moral and cultural issues?

Meanwhile, the CNN.com report was much stronger in this regard, since it noted that the current policies that guide the work of military chaplains already contain the very tensions about the public and one-on-one expressions of doctrine that are now being linked to the DADT debate. Again, here is that section of the CNN.com story:

"Existing regulations state that chaplains 'will not be required to perform a religious role ... in worship services, command ceremonies, or other events, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices of their faith.' At the same time, regulations state that 'Chaplains care for all Service members, including those who claim no religious faith, facilitate the religious requirements of personnel of all faiths, provide faith-specific ministries, and advise the command.' "

Once again, someone will need to define the word "care."

In other words, these doctrinal tensions are not new. The DADT debates are merely the latest chapter in a larger church-state story, once in which voices on the left and right must be reported accurately.

About those 'secular' menorahs

When it comes to decorating tabernacles and temples, the God of Israel cares about the fine details.

Consider these Exodus instructions: "Thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made: his shaft, and his branches, his bowls, his knops, and his flowers, shall be of the same. And six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side."

Counting the center candlestick, this created a unique candelabrum with seven lamps, a number that in scripture symbolizes holiness and completeness. The result is a shape familiar to anyone who has studied religion, liturgy and art. It is also a crucial symbol in America's debates about the role of public faith in the month of December.

"The menorah is the premier symbol of Judaism, especially if the goal is to symbolize the Jewish faith," said Steven Fine, visiting professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University in New York City.

While many assign this role to the modern Star of David, this scholar of art and archaeology begs to differ. The weakness of the six-pointed star is also its strength, Fine explained. It has no historic meaning and, thus, can be used by every imaginable kind of Jew, from Orthodox believers to those who choose to assimilate into secular cultures.

"You could not say that about the menorah and that's the point," said Fine. "The menorah is different because of its deep roots in the Jewish faith itself. ... For the prophet Zechariah, it represented the very eyes of God watching over us in our lives. You can't get more religious than that."

And there's the rub. We live in an age in which government officials -- local, state and national -- are wrestling with holiday trees, menorahs, creches, angels, ears of corn, Santa statues, plastic snowmen and a host of other secular and sacred objects that church-state partisans keep dragging into the public square. The result is what columnist Jonah Goldberg calls "Christmas Agonistes," a condition produced by some cliffhanger decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s.

There are few guidelines carved in stone. The court did establish what many activists call the "reindeer rules" that allow displays of religious symbols on public property as long as they are surrounded by other symbols, which are usually borrowed from pop culture.

Another ruling said that most nativity scenes are "religious" while most menorahs are "cultural." Following this logic, many educators forbid the singing of religious Christmas songs, while teaching students to sing Hanukkah songs about the "mighty miracle" that allowed Jewish rebels long ago to defeat their Greek and Syrian oppressors.

Jewish tradition teaches that when it came time to open the recaptured temple, only one container of pure oil could be found for the holy lamp. However, this one-day supply burned for eight days. Thus, menorahs used at Hanukkah -- which begins this year at sundown on Dec. 25 -- have eight candles or lamps.

It's easy, said Fine, to understand why some people have their doubts about court rulings that say the menorah is now a "secular" or "cultural" symbol.

In his book "Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World," the historian notes that through the centuries: "The menorah became the marker of Jewish religious space, Jewish bread, Jewish tombs, occasionally Jewish homes and -- when worn as jewelry -- Jewish bodies. This practice continued from late antiquity through the Middle Ages and into modern times. ...

"Mosaics and screens that in a church context might be decorated with a cross were adorned with menorahs in synagogues -- and were often made by the same artisans for both religions. The menorah and the cross were thus twinned symbols, both serving their communities as markers separating them from one another."

At the same time, it is also hard to understand why some religious believers now celebrate when courts declare their sacred symbols safe, neutral and tame, said Fine.

"Who could have imagined anyone claiming that the menorah is a secular symbol? Then again," he said, "who could anyone have imagined that we would ever face this kind -- this degree -- of secularization. That's something for Jews to think about."

Soulforce preaches to the Navy

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- All the Rev. Mel White, Jacob Reitan and the rest of their Soulforce team wanted to do was talk to people. That was the good news. The bad news was that they wanted to talk about God, politics and homosexuality, although not necessarily in that order. It also didn't help that the people they wanted to talk to were midshipmen on the U.S. Naval Academy campus -- on a football-weekend Friday, no less.

"Free speech is free speech," said White, who, before going public as a gay activist, was a ghostwriter for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other evangelical leaders. White is one of the founders of Soulforce, which is based in Lynchburg, Va.

"If people don't want to talk, all they have to do is say so and walk away."

Soulforce activists drifted around the academy campus in small clusters last weekend, their bright pastel t-shirts standing out among the blue uniforms and gray Chesapeake Bay mists. They attracted packs of journalists.

The 40 or so protestors -- mostly college students from nearby -- offered this greeting: "We're here to talk about the military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy. What do you think about that?"

Most midshipmen declined to talk. Capt. Helen Dunn, deputy superintendent at the academy, had issued this memo: "Members of this group may attempt to gain access to the Yard and approach you for discussions. We ask that you carry out your normal routine, ... stay clear of our security personnel and the protestors, and to politely refer questions from media or the demonstrators to the Public Affairs Office."

These are tense days at America's military academies, which are emerging as bitter battlefields in church-state wars.

At the Air Force Academy, the hot issue is salvation. Evangelicals have been accused of going overboard as they interact with non-Christians and non-believers. Evangelical chaplains have even been attacked for delivering evangelistic messages in voluntary chapel services and other optional events. A circle of conservative lawmakers recently wrote to President Bush urging him to issue an executive order guaranteeing the free-speech rights of chaplains.

Right now, the hot issue at the Naval Academy is sexuality. Activists are trying to break what they believe is a faith-based chokehold on military policies affecting the careers and relationships of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans-gendered persons.

At the Air Force Academy, it's hard to speak up in favor of conservative religious doctrines.

At the Naval Academy, it's hard to speak up in opposition to them.

In both cases, believers -- on left and right -- are trying to proclaim what they believe is true. They are trying to change hearts and minds through the power of words and public witness. The problem, of course, is that one person's free speech is another's evangelism, public protest or, heaven forbid, even proselytizing.

At some point, said White, government officials must realize that people have a right to dialogue and debate. People have the right to talk and the right not to listen.

"It's like all the people who want to censor television. You keep trying to tell people like that, 'Don't censor us. Just change the channel,' " he said, while greeting visitors outside the academy bookstore. "That's what this is all about, too. We just want to talk to people and let them know what we think. What's so scary about that?"

At first, Naval Academy officials threatened to have the demonstrators arrested if they came on campus. Then both sides agreed to a shaky compromise that allowed the activists the same rights as other visitors, other than the right to talk with midshipmen. Most members of the Soulforce team went right ahead and talked, said Reitan, leader of the group's "Equality Ride" program.

In the months ahead, Soulforce teams will be traveling to a dozen or more other campuses -- including the other military academies and an array of conservative religious colleges and universities from coast to coast.

"Hopefully, people at the campuses we stop at in the future will be willing to set up forums and create other kinds of settings in which we can discuss these issues in a more adult, academic manner," said Reitan. "But we have decided that we're not going to let our free speech to be edited during any of our future stops."