by David Ramsey
Thirty-five years ago, as a reporter for The Washington Post, I spent 13 weeks following young recruits through Marine Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. That February, 226 candidates entered OCS; in April, 117—about half—got their lieutenant’s bars.
One of the candidates wanted to be a Marine aviator. He was fit, fast, and smart—good officer material. But as he neared the halfway mark of the training, he underwent a crisis of conscience. OCS training is demanding and martial. Instructors emphasized the realities of combat day after day. (One went so far as to read the candidates “Dulce et Decorum Est” by English poet Wilfred Owen—a vivid description of a World War I gas attack that left blood “gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” of dying soldiers.)
At some point, this candidate realized he could not in good conscience engage in warfare. “Can I put a squad of men up against enemy fire?” he asked himself. “Can I permit my men to kill other human beings?” He struggled with his beliefs—even debated them respectfully with the battalion commander—but concluded he could not stay.
It was a painful parting on both sides. He lost a coveted career, the Corps lost a promising candidate. But it had to happen.
Here’s what didn’t happen: Nobody suggested that dropping him from OCS was a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of “the free exercise” of religion. He did not say, “I think that in recognition of my sincere religious opposition to war, you should let me stay in the Corps and get my pilot’s wings. I will do the job, except for one thing: I won’t drop bombs or shoot guns.”
Is it possible to agree on what religious freedom is not? It’s not a right to wear a Marine uniform but refuse to fight. It’s not a right to be a county clerk and decide which citizens you will serve and which you won’t. Religious “accommodation” doesn’t mean what Liberty Counsel thinks it means. If a person can perform the duties of a job with some adjustment for religious belief, that’s an accommodation. If they’re not willing to do the job, they have to leave. That’s not just a requirement of law; honor requires it as well.