WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is cracking down on evangelizing at its national network of recruit-processing centers, telling religious groups that it won’t permit proselytizing at the sites.

A new regulation quietly distributed last month to commanders of the 65 centers says that religious literature and publications produced by other “non-federal entities” may be made available to recruits at the sites but that they cannot show favoritism to any particular faith or group.

“Under no circumstances,” will any outsiders “be permitted to proselytize, preach or provide spiritual counseling” to recruits or staff members at the centers, the regulation adds.

Also barred are publications that “create the reasonable impression that the government is sponsoring, endorsing or inhibiting religion generally,” as well as secular publications like “sales flyers or commercial advertising.”

The action comes amid complaints from civil liberties groups that some ministries have targeted the centers for their evangelizing and on occasion have tried to gain an advantage among recruits by tying themselves to the military. The civil libertarians argue that such church-state ties are barred by the U.S. Constitution but that some evangelicals routinely try to skirt the rules.

The centers run by the Military Entrance Processing Service are the last stop for recruits on their way to basic training. The newcomers get a final physical exam and take the oath of office as members of the armed forces. Recruits from Hampton Roads area of Virginia typically go through the center at Fort Lee, near Petersburg, Va.

Jeremy Gunn, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer whose warnings to the military apparently sparked adoption of the new rules, said a recruit at the Louisville, Ky., processing center complained about being approached by a representative of The Gideons, a group best known for providing Bibles in hotel rooms around the world.

The ACLU subsequently learned about evangelizing activities at up to 10 other centers, including some in which recruits were handed religious tracts during their processing “as if it were part of official, military-sanctioned procedure,” Gunn said.

In at least one case, copies of the New Testament were distributed with khaki covers, suggesting the book was a military publication, he added.

The Gideons provide copies of the New Testament for distribution at the Fort Lee center, its commander, Army Maj. Carl Faison, confirmed Tuesday.

But the group has never sought anything more than making its materials available,

Steve Smith, a Gideons spokesman, confirmed that the group routinely distributes Bibles and copies of the New Testament at the recruit processing sites.

He declined to comment on the new Defense Department rules but said the Gideons don’t engage in proselytizing.

The Gideons’ activities are “part of a broader pattern within the military, of allowing outside groups easier access to evangelize,” said Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that monitors religion in government.


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