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“Revolt” at the Academy?

USAFA ChapelMikey Weinstein, head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), is again attacking religious freedom. This time the attack has been provoked at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Many of the cadets there are outraged by the attack, and the response has led Weinstein to characterize their actions as a “revolt.” He is threatening the Academy with a lawsuit unless his demands are met.

The controversy began when a cadet posted a verse from the New Testament (Galatians 2:20) on a whiteboard. Weinstein claims that 33 individuals at the Academy, 29 cadets and 4 faculty and staff, reported the verse to MRFF but did not feel comfortable reporting it to the Academy’s leadership. He claims the verse was posted for “two hours and nine minutes” before it was removed after his call. The Academy admitted this past Wednesday that a cadet leader removed the verse that was displayed outside of his dorm room because it offended non-Christians and could “cause subordinates to doubt the leader’s religious impartiality.” Several of the cadets informed Todd Starnes that the verse had been posted several months ago, and that many considered it a “source of inspiration.” After the cadet removed the verse, several other cadets posted verses from the Old Testament, New Testament, and Quran on their whiteboards – which Weinstein considers a “revolt” that needs to be suppressed.

Weinstein maintains that if the verse had been posted in the cadet’s room, it would not have been an issue. Rather, he claims it is “about the time, the place, and the manner” of the posting. He argues that posting the verse outside of a dormitory door is unacceptable and illegal because the hallway is part of the “working squadron area,” a public location where cadets assemble. He believes the verse on the personal whiteboard “created a hostile environment at the Academy.”

A spokesperson for the Academy, Lt Col Brus Vidal, stated, “The whiteboards are for both official and personal use, but when a concern was raised we addressed it and the comment was taken down.” He remarked that there is a “gray area” when it comes to a cadet’s personal room and the hallway, where the verse was posted. He also stated the whiteboards are utilized for both personal and official use. Lt Col Vidal further stated there was no misconduct on the part of the cadet in question, and that the cadet will not be punished. However, Weinstein disagreed with that assessment. He believes the incident displayed “absolute misconduct” and that the cadet should be punished. He remarked, “It clearly elevated one religious faith [fundamentalist Christianity] over all others at an already virulently hyper-fundamentalist Christian institution. It massively poured fundamentalist Christian gasoline on an already raging out-of-control conflagration of fundamentalist Christian tyranny, exceptionalism and supremacy at USAFA.”

Major General Jerry Boykin (USA, ret.), inquired, “What about the rights of the Christian cadets who have a constitutional right to express their individual faith?” He then stated, “If a scripture scares the faculty this much, then it is unlikely that they will be very effective when confronted by a committed enemy who is willing to die for his or her beliefs.” Boykin accused the Academy of violating the Constitutional rights of the cadets.

Several cadets contacted Starnes, requesting anonymity to discuss the matter. According to him, these cadets believe Christians are being treated unfairly. One of the unnamed cadets stated, “It’s been suggested that we keep our faith to ourselves. It’s even too risky to go out into the hallway and talk to a Christian friend about your faith. It’s because there are people here who are so easily offended. If someone overheard us talking about Christianity, they could file a complaint. They could say we were having that discussion in a public space.” Another cadet stated, “It’s gotten to the point where you can’t walk to class without stepping on somebody’s toes.” Other cadets noted they are fed up with the “uber-sensitivity” at the Academy. One cadet said, “People are so apt to be offended by something that is totally respectful. If you read the verse the guy put on his door – it’s a personal expression of faith. There’s nothing disrespectful about that at all.”

Weinstein vows to take the Academy to court unless every cadet who wrote a religious verse on their whiteboards is punished. The head of MRFF told Starnes, “This is an absolutely horrible, shameful disgrace. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an open rebellion like this happening at any military academy. It’s like they’re sticking their middle finger up at what the academy did.” He likened the posting of the verses to racism.

The Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition, which includes the Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, Liberty Institute and Thomas More Law Center, announced its readiness to represent any cadet brought up on charges. Gary McCaleb, of the Alliance Defending Freedom, declared, “Suppressing religion is wrong whether it is done behind an Iron Curtain or in a dorm hallway. Certainly such raw anti-religious discrimination has no place in America’s Air Force.” Michael Berry, senior counsel for the Liberty Institute declared that the removal of the verse and any punishment that could be handed out for its publication is a violation of the Department of Defense Instruction 1300.17, a provision that protects the religious liberty of military members.

* * * * *

Billy Hallowell, The Blaze, “‘Revolt’ Over Bible Verse Removal Leads to Air Force Academy Explanation” (13 MAR 2014)

Heather Clark, Christian News (Christian News Network), “Air Force Cadets ‘Revolt’ Against Removal of Scripture from Academy Dorm White Board” (13 MAR 2014)

Military Religious Freedom Foundation, “MRFF Win Provokes Uprising by Fundamentalist Christian Cadets at USAFA”

Pam Zubeck, Colorado Springs Independent, “UPDATE: Bible verse gets Mikey going, again” (12 MAR 2014)

Todd Starnes, Fox News, “What’s going on at Air Force Academy? God’s word vs. Pentagon’s word” (13 MAR 2014)

House Panel Investigates Discrimination Against Military Chaplains

congressToday (30 Jan 14) Adelle M. Banks of the Religion News Service reported, “Discrimination Against Military Chaplains Subject of a House Panel, Pentagon Unaware of Bias.”  Lawmakers grilled Pentagon officials yesterday regarding claims that military chaplains have faced religious discrimination.  The Army, Navy, and Air Force Deputy Chiefs of Chaplains stated repeatedly they were unaware of any such claims.  The deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, Virginia Penrod, informed the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel she was unable to cite specific instances in which chaplains were forced to preach a sermon or conduct a ceremony that conflicted with their beliefs.  She added, “There’s absolutely nothing in policy or code that prohibits a chaplain from praying according to the dictates of their faith.”  The hearing followed on the heels of the Pentagon releasing an updated “instruction” on religious accommodation.  Updates to the instruction, including specific policies regarding chaplains, will be completed this summer according to Penrod.

Though not dealing directly with a military chaplain, nothing was stated during the hearing, to my knowledge, which pointed to the recent episode regarding Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt) Philip Monk.  SMSgt Monk was serving as a first sergeant at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, when his commander, an openly homosexual Air Force officer, relieved him of duty because he refused to agree to disciplinary action against an instructor over comments the instructor made regarding same-sex marriage.  SMSgt Monk stated that during one of their initial meetings, the commander “objected to one particular chaplain that she called a ‘bigot’ because he preached that homosexuality is a sin. She then said, ‘I don’t know what kind of people actually believe that kind of crap.'”

Panel members questioned whether commanders are permitted to proselytize.  Chaplain, Brigadier General Charles R. Bailey, the Army  Deputy Chief of Chaplains, stated it would be “wrong” for commanders to declare their faith was superior to others, but that private conversations related to matters of faith are permissible.  He said, “They’re never told they cannot share their own personal faith of any sort.”  In 2012, however, Lieutenant General Ronnie Hawkins, who took command of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) held a commander’s call to introduce himself.  He provided a PowerPoint presentation that included 18 of his personal rules for life.  The first was, “Always put God first, and stay within His will.”  The last was, “Always remember that God is good — all the time!”  Hawkins’ public faith was disturbing to some DISA members.  The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) claimed to have been contacted by 21 members about the presentation, and lodged a protest.

Banks reported that several members of Congress have a different impression from the military’s top chaplains about the state of religious accommodation in the military, according to Bishop James B. Magness of the Episcopal Church’s armed services office.  Magness rightly noted, “There’s a real disconnect if things are being said to members of Congress that are not getting to the chiefs of chaplains. I don’t have a reason for why.”

New Religious Accommodation Policy

pentagonThis past week, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced it would be loosening certain restrictions related to religious apparel (e.g., yarmulkes, turbans) and religiously-based appearance (e.g., beards, tattoos) in order to accommodate “individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs.” The DoD also announced that unless such accommodation has an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, health and safety, or any other military requirement, commanders are able to grant military members permission to display their religious articles while in uniform. In addition to apparel and appearance, the policy also opens the door for military members asking for specific times to pray. The new policy also points out the fact that military members have the right to observe no religion whatsoever. Though the new policy is being hailed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as expanding the rights of non-Christian religions, Sikhs do not believe the restrictions have been loosened enough. Across the entire U.S. military (about 1.4 million members), there are approximately three Sikhs, 1,500 Wiccans, 3,700 Muslims, 4,677 Jews, and 6,300 Buddhists.

The Chaplain Corps & the Constitution

Stock Photo of the Consitution of the United States and Feather Quill“The best defense of the chaplaincy,
and of any religious program in the military,
is that it preserves a soldier’s right
to freely exercise his religion.
In the absence of government funded chaplains,
soldiers would be stymied from practicing religion
in situations made necessary by military service.”
- Col. Michael J. Benjamin, Staff Judge Advocate,
Office of the Staff Judge Advocate (TCJA),
U.S. Transportation Command

The Chaplain Corps actually predates the U.S. Constitution. On 29 July 1775, General George Washington petitioned the Second Continental Congress to institute the military chaplaincy for the fledgling United States Army. Gen. Washington introduced the chaplaincy as follows:

The Hon. Continental Congress having been pleased to allow a Chaplain to each Regiment, with the pay of Thirty-three Dollars and one third pr month–The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains accordingly; persons of good Characters and exemplary lives–To see that all inferior officers and soldiers pay them a suitable respect and attend carefully upon religious exercises. The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger–The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavour so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.

In September of that year, Gen. Washington instructed Gen. Arnold to ensure religious liberty within military ranks. He wrote, “As far as lays in your power, you are to protect and support the free exercise of the Religion of the Country and the undisturbed Enjoyment of the rights of Conscience in religious Matters, with your utmost Influence and Authority.” The Navy Chaplain Corps was instituted by the Second Continental Congress on 13 October 1775. It was administered by a Marine Committee, and Navy Regulations were adopted a month later by that committee (28 November). The second article of those regulations state, “The Commanders of the ships of the thirteen United Colonies, are to take care that divine service be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays, unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent.” On 16 May 1775, a General Order given by Washington called for a day of rest followed by a day of chapel attendance for the troops with “their respective chaplains.” The Continental Congress furthered the Chaplain Corps with an act on 27 May 1777, providing for the assignment of a chaplain to each Army brigade (with colonel’s pay).

The first Congress established the Chaplain Corps under the U.S. Constitution in 1789, along with civilian chaplains who served in the House of Representatives and Senate. The “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, voted in favor of authorizing the chaplaincy in 1791, 1794, and 1797 while a member of Congress, and signed such an authorization in 1814 while serving as our nation’s President. Congress made provision for 30 Army chaplains, 24 Navy chaplains, two Congressional chaplains, and chaplains at military educational institutions and frontier forts by 1838. The matter of religious liberty, undergirded by a military chaplaincy, was essential from the beginning in our nation’s history.

Not all citizens have been happy with the existence of the Chaplain Corps, however. In 1818, the Kehukee Primitive Baptist Association petitioned Congress to repeal the appointment of chaplains not only to the military, but also to Congress and other public stations. Congress ignored the petition. Similar petitions were received by Congress between 1850 and 1854, resulting in the House Judiciary Committee issuing three separate reports providing the constitutional basis for chaplains. All of the reports noted that Congress was within its discretion to appoint non-combatant positions, including both chaplains and surgeons. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case of two Harvard Law School students in 1985. The pair alleged the Army Chaplain Corps was unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Court ruled that the creation of an army obligates Congress to make the free exercise of religion available to soldiers who have been deployed to regions of the world where their own religions are unavailable to them. This principle is reflected in U.S. Army Regulation 165-1, which states, “In striking a balance between the ‘establishment’ and ‘free exercise’ clauses, the Army chaplaincy, in providing religious services and ministries to the command, is an instrument of the U.S. Government to ensure that soldiers’ ‘free exercise’ rights are protected. At the same time, chaplains are trained to avoid even the appearance of any establishment of religion.” This regulation justifies the role of chaplains in ceremonies outside of the chapel because “such occasions are not considered to be religious services.”

Despite the contention that the existence of military chaplains undermines the Establishment Clause, the fact is that their existence actually ensures religious liberty. This fact was understood by the Founding Fathers, reemphasized by Congress during the 19th century, and defended in court in recent years. Attacks against the Chaplain Corps are assaults against freedom.

Chaplains: Courage Under Fire

DSC“I glanced up and there was Father John Maloney, holding a small cross in his hands and walking down the center of the road, administering last rites to our dying. Never seen anything like it, a priest administering last rites with bullets bouncing around his feet. Takes a hell of a lot of conviction, and faith, for a man to do that.”
– Technical Sergeant Donald Malarkey, 101st Airborne Division

The Battle of Carentan occurred in France during World War II between 10-15 June 1944.  U.S. Army Airborne forces engaged the German Wehrmacht.  The objective of the U.S. forces was to consolidate the U.S. beachheads (Utah Beach and Omaha Beach) and to establish a continuous line of defense against German counterattacks.  The defending German forces attempted to hold Carentan long enough to permit reinforcements from the south to arrive and prevent the 1st Army from launching an attack towards Lessay-Périers that would effectively cut off the Cotentin Peninsula.  During the battle, the 101st Airborne forced passage across the causeway into Carentan in order to take the city.  During the battle, Chaplain, Captain, John Maloney, the regimental chaplain with the 506th Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, who had parachuted into occupied France on June 6, 1944, administered last rites to the dead and dying soldiers and provided comfort to the wounded despite the heavy fire and carnage taking place all around the area.  Maloney received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), the second highest military award that may be given to an armed forces member, for his extraordinary heroism.  His citation reads as follows:

Captain Maloney, completely disregarding his own personal safety, assisted medical-aid men in administering first aid to the wounded in intense enemy machine gun fire. He further assisted in their evacuation under continuous mortar fire. Captain Maloney’s fortitude, initiative and courage reflects great credit to himself and is in keeping with the highest traditions of the Armed Forces.

Since the War for Independence, chaplains have served during every American war and conflict.  While the duties of chaplains are focused primarily on matters of religious accommodation and morale, many chaplains have also demonstrated tremendous bravery on the battlefield. Stories abound of chaplains administering last rites to fallen soldiers, oblivious to the fire around them, or dashing out into the open to rescue the wounded without regard to their own lives.  Five chaplains have earned the Medal of Honor for such courage.  The clip below, taken from Band of Brothers, demonstrates not only the courageous action of the soldiers of the 101st, but also of Chaplain Maloney (see beginning at 8:19; WARNING: graphic war violence and language).

Chaplains Corps Established in 1775

revolutionary-soldiers-chaplainWhile some within contemporary American culture argue that the existence of military chaplains violates the “separation of church and state” clause, the historical fact is that the Chaplain Corps is older than the nation itself and was never viewed by the Founding Fathers (or any others, until recently) as such a violation.  On 29 July 1775, General George Washington petitioned the Second Continental Congress to institute the military chaplaincy for the fledgling United States Army.  Gen. Washington introduced the chaplaincy as follows:

The Hon. Continental Congress having been pleased to allow a Chaplain to each Regiment, with the pay of Thirty-three Dollars and one third pr month–The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains accordingly; persons of good Characters and exemplary lives–To see that all inferior officers and soldiers pay them a suitable respect and attend carefully upon religious exercises. The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger–The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavour so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.

Uncle Scrooge?

ImageRep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, is concerned that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) showed disrespect for Christians and censored Christmas in its facilities.  He contends that the VA medical facility in Augusta, Georgia, banned carolers from singing Christmas songs containing religious references in public areas of the hospital (and carolers declined the offer to sing songs on a list of government-approved songs); VA officials in Iowa City, Iowa, informed volunteers from the American Legion they were unable to give gifts to veterans if they were wrapped with decorative paper containing the words “Merry Christmas”; VA personnel in Montgomery, Alabama, prevented a woman from delivering gift bags to veterans because they contained the words “Merry Christmas”; and the Dallas, Texas, VA medical facility refused the delivery of handwritten Christmas cards from local school children because phrases such as “Merry Christmas” and “God Bless You” were written in them.

Daniel Dellinger, National Commander of the American Legion, stated in regard to the incident in Texas, “First of all, VA’s decision to prohibit the delivery of Christmas cards that mention Christmas is ludicrous.  Second of all, VA has been down this road before, and recently. VA has been warned through a federal court decree to stop denying freedom of religious expression at its facilities. It’s pretty obvious the Dallas VA did not get that memo.”  Dellinger added, “Christians are more and more often targeted for censorship and restriction at VA facilities.”

In a letter sent to Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Rep. Miller declared, “In taking it upon themselves to restrict Christmas cards, carols and gifts in certain locations, VA officials clearly ignored longstanding federal government traditions, basic common sense and possibly a 2011 federal consent decree that ordered VA not to ban religious speech.”  He demanded that Shinseki hold personnel responsible for possible constitutional and civil rights violations.  Rep. Miller set up an e-mail address in order for VA staff, patients, and volunteers to report acts of religious prohibition.  It is: varoi@mail.house.gov


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