General Assembly’s action will protect religious freedom in the Virginia National GuardRichmond, VA -- Today, the General Assembly voted to sustain Governor McAuliffe’s veto of Senate Bill 555. Senate Bill 555 would have allowed National Guard chaplains to proselytize to unwilling service members.
“By stating that the content of Virginia National Guard chaplains’ talks cannot be ‘censored,’ SB 555 flipped the purpose of military chaplains on its head,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. “Military chaplains exist to give service members the opportunity to practice their own religion, not to give chaplains the opportunity to seek converts from among the ranks.”
Under SB 555, “the religious content of sermons made by chaplains of the Virginia National Guard . . . shall not be censored or restricted by any state government official or agency, so long as such content does not urge disobedience of lawful orders.” It would have allowed chaplains to promote their own religious views at mandatory events or while counseling guard members of different religions. Currently, chaplains may express their views at voluntary worship services and while counseling those who share their faith, as well as privately in an unofficial capacity.
“Courts have explained that military chaplain systems should ‘leave the practice of religion solely to the individual soldier, who is free to worship or not as he chooses without fear of any discipline or stigma,’” said Gastañaga. “By allowing chaplains to push their particular religious viewpoint at mandatory events, this legislation not only undermines the mission of military chaplains, but also crosses a constitutional line.”
“The ACLU of Virginia does not support any limitation of any person’s right to religious expression in their unofficial or personal capacities. But, a military chaplain acting in his or her official role does not have the right to use official mandatory events as a platform to disseminate his or her own religious views, and we thank the General Assembly for sustaining Governor McAuliffe’s veto and for recognizing this important distinction,” concluded Gastañaga.