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The use of food stamps increased in 2013 among military families, with nearly $104 million worth of food stamps redeemed at military commissaries during the past fiscal year. The use of food stamps has increased steadily among military members since 2008. According to the executive director of the National Military Family Association, Joyce Raezer, some states have lowered the eligibility requirements for receiving food stamps, and that may account for some of the increase. Thomas Greer, spokesperson for Operation Homefront (a non-profit organization that helps military members experiencing financial difficulties), stated that his group received 2,968 emergency requests for food last year. While that number is down from two years ago, it is three times as high as the number in 2008. He added, “I’m amazed, but there’s a very real need [for food stamps].”
Today (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.”
A U.S. Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk from RAF Lakenheath was engaged in a low-flying training mission when it crashed in the Norfolk Wildlife Trust Cley Marshes Nature Reserve near Salthouse, England. Residents heard a “heavy and very unusual” sound as the helicopter plummeted into the marshland. Though emergency personnel, military personnel and volunteers worked throughout the night searching for survivors, a statement was released by the USAF’s 48th Fighter Wing this morning (8 Jan 14) stating that the four airmen aboard the aircraft were all killed. Per military protocol, the names of the deceased will not be released to the public until after next-of-kin notifications (NOKs) have been made. The cause of the crash is being investigated. Pave Hawks are generally used for search and rescue missions, particularly for downed air crew members or other personnel in combat zones or other hostile situations. Because of the nature of this mission, HH-60 pilots tend to fly at high speeds at very low altitudes – usually under 1,000 feet.
Please pray for the families of the deceased airmen, their fellow airmen, and the chaplains assigned at RAF Lakenheath who are now shouldering the load of crisis intervention counseling and preparing for memorial services.
Rep. 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: email@example.com
According to a recent poll, the majority of Americans would rather wish others a “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.” The poll also reveals that one’s view of the matter is generally tied to political leanings, the cable network watched, and age. The poll revealed the following:
* 67% of U.S. residents prefer “Merry Christmas” while 18 % prefer “Happy Holidays”; 15% are indifferent
* Both Republicans (82%) & Democrats (55%) prefer “Merry Christmas”
* 70% of Americans under 30 prefer “Merry Christmas,” while 30% state they prefer a more neutral greeting
* 71% of Americans over 45 prefer “Merry Christmas”Fox News viewers are more concerned about retaining religion during the holidays than MSNBC & “Daily Show” viewers
* 40% of Republicans believe that politicians are trying to remove “Christ” from Christmas, while just 16% of Democrats do
* 27% of African-Americans &11% of Hispanics agree that the “War on Christmas” is real
* Over all, 74% of Americans believe schools should have Christmas pageants & displays rather than non-religious holiday even
Two in three Americans strongly agree towns should be able to put up manger scenes even if it offends some residents
When it comes to Christmas, Americans do largely agree on one thing: 89% percent say Christmas is the U.S. today is more about presents and consumerism than religion. Only 8% disagree. Nonetheless, I would like to wish all True Blue readers a very Merry Christmas!
Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Free Thinkers, is among those who have pushed recently to create a “chaplain” position for atheists and secular humanists. While this is an inherent contradiction, supporters argue atheists in the military need individuals to “pro-actively reach out to them and facilitate meetings.” Torpy claims chaplains do not provide enough “positive outreach and support” in the way “they do for all of those beliefs that aren’t their own.” Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, stated, “Chaplains for nontheistic military service members are absolutely crucial for so many men and women who are serving our country. Religious chaplains are ill equipped to handle the problems of nontheistic service members and unfortunately, seeking psychiatric help can stigmatize a service member for the rest of their career.”
Last month, lawmakers rejected a Democratic-sponsored amendment that would have created the position. Yesterday, lawmakers approved a Republican-sponsored amendment to a defense budget bill that requires military chaplains to be affiliated with a particular faith. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), stated, “When it comes to the idea of an atheist chaplain, which is an oxymoron – it’s self-contradictory – what you’re really doing is now saying that we’re going to replace true chaplains with non-chaplain chaplains. It’s just total nonsense, the idea of having a chaplain who is an atheist.”
Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), who also serves as an Air Force chaplain, said he has often dealt with atheists who were simply asking for help with their problems. He remarked, “What I have found is so many times people in our world today just need someone to listen.” Collins disagreed with the idea of creating a new atheist-specific position, noting other counseling services are available. He added, “They need to come at it differently instead of just saying we want an atheist chaplain. I think there’s plenty of opportunities for them to talk.”
The military has all types of counselors available for its members, including psychologists and psychiatrists. Nonetheless, Torpy and his cohorts want a specific non-faith chaplain role established. The MAAFT head noted that the Humanist Society is recognized as a religious organization by the Internal Revenue Agency, “Basically, the standard is to be recognized as a church by the Internal Revenue Service.” The Pentagon could still determine to permit atheistic/humanistic chaplains, but members of Congress just voted 253-173 to prohibit the post.
An amendment proposed by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ) to allow atheistic chaplains was defeated. The pair declared erroneously that it was unfair for non-religious service members to only be appointed mental health professionals, while religious service members benefitted from a chaplain representing their faith. Chaplains, regardless of religious affiliation, serve all members of the military. Just as atheistic members sought help from Rep. Collins in his role as an Air Force chaplain, current military members may seek counseling from chaplains. Nothing whatsoever prohibits them from receiving help.
Rep. Bob Andrews (D-NJ) offered an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act this past Wednesday that would permit atheists, humanists, or members of ethical culture groups to the military chaplain corps. His idea was to assist atheistic military members who want to speak to someone about their problems without seeking a medical professional. This idea has gained momentum recently.
Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, however, objected greatly to the proposal. They maintained that atheists are unable to offer spiritual counseling and would likely offend service members or their families. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), stated strongly, “They don’t believe anything. I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, ‘You know, that’s it – your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food.’” Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), added, “This I think would make a mockery of the chaplaincy. The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they’re at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, ‘If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.’” The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Smith(D-WA), responded, “To say that an atheist or a humanist doesn’t believe anything is just ignorant. The response to the gentleman’s amendment
makes me feel all the more the necessity of it.”
These politicians are obviously unaware of a couple of facts. First, atheists are able to speak about their problems with the chaplains who are currently serving. They are not prohibited from speaking with chaplains, and chaplains will not force their religious views upon them during counseling. Rather, chaplains are trained to work with an individual according to his or her worldview. Second, if atheists do not desire to speak with a chaplain, they may seek counsel from several sources, including mental health, Military Family Life Consultants, and a variety of options from Military One Source. In other words, they already have options – including both medical and non-medical ones. Rep. Andrews’ amendment would provide nothing useful, and serve only to undermine the role of faith in the lives of military members and undercut the beneficial and demanding work of the chaplain corps.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation reposted a Huffington Post article on its website with the title, “The Pentagon Most Certainly is Listening to Mikey Weinstein.” The atheistic group, which seems to have a particular axe to grind with evangelical Christianity, is led by Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate. Just this past April, Weinstein had a private meeting with Pentagon officials regarding religious proselytization in the military – a matter which he calls a “national security threat.” Weinstein likened religious dialogue to “spiritual rape,” a matter which he considers equivalent to “sedition and treason” that “should be punished.” He pushed for the Pentagon to court martial anyone guilty of religious proselytizing. His remarks generated national outrage, leading the military to downplay his influence, yet the recent episode at Mountain Home Air Force Base should cause Americans who cherish freedom of religion to question why Weinstein suddenly has so much influence in the military.
An inspirational painting that featured a crusader and referenced a Bible verse – Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” was removed from the dining hall at Mountain Home just fifty-six minutes after Weinstein called the Pentagon. Apparently, a non-commissioned officer (NCO) from Mountain Home acted as a spokesperson for a group of 22 Airmen (supposedly seventeen of whom are Christian – both Roman Catholic and Protestant) who wanted the artwork removed. None of the Airmen have been named. Completely disregarding the chain of command – an overly egregious matter which was heinously overlooked by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and other leaders in the Pentagon – the picture (which had been hanging in the facility for several years) was removed. The MRFF called the painting “repugnant.”
Colonel Christopher Short, Commander of the 366th Fighter Wing, informed Fox News that the painting was removed as soon as he was made aware of it. He received calls from both the Pentagon and Weinstein. Short added, “We make reasonable accommodations for all religions and celebrate the religious diversity of our Airmen.” He remarked the picture was removed in order to comply with the Air Force’s position outlined in the Revised Interim Guidelines Concerning Free Exercise of Religion in the Air Force. “The document states that we will remain officially neutral regarding religious beliefs – neither officially endorsing nor disapproving any faith belief or absence of belief,” He noted.
The commander told Weinstein “that he will be ordering another inspection to rid his base of anything else like what had been hanging in the dining hall,” according to Chris Rodda, MRFF’s senior research director. Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin (US Army, ret.), vice-president of the Family Research Council, stated that the removal of the picture raises serious questions about Weinstein’s influence within the military, and remarked that this incident also raises serious questions about the Pentagon’s attitude towards religious liberty.
The proper course of action for the NCO and other Airmen, in following the chain of command, would have been for them to contact their local Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) office. The primary objective of the MEO program is to improve mission effectiveness by promoting an environment free from personal, social, or institutional barriers that prevent Air Force members from rising to the highest level of responsibility possible. Air Force policy is to conduct its affairs free from unlawful discrimination against military members, family members, and retirees based on race, color, gender, national origin, or religion. The MEO office at Mountain Home would have then been able to investigate the matter with input from proper sources, such as the Chaplain Corps and Judge Advocate General, to determine the proper course of action. Instead, Weinstein – an individual – was essentially granted authority over the Air Force’s chain of command. That is frightening for not only people of faith, but also for Americans who cherish both the Constitution and military members who need the lawful structure of the military to keep matters from becoming chaotic. Structure exists not only for the well-being of military members, but for the retaining the framework necessary for dealing with matters of life and death in times of war. The influence granted to Weinstein and the MRFF pose a threat to Constitutional rights and to national security (by undermining the chain of command). All lovers of liberty should be alarmed at what transpired at Mountain Home AFB.
Atheists continue to attack the religious rights of U.S. military members, namely those wanting to freely exercise their observance of Christmas. Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain has held an annual Christmas Tree lighting for years. This event has included the singing of carols, the presence of St. Nicholas, and the consumption of cookies and cocoa. It has also featured a live nativity, composed of base children and local animals. The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers views “a Christmas tree, presents, some songs, and even Santa Claus as trappings of secular Christmas.” However, “Angels, nativity scenes, crosses, prayers, and carols focused explicitly on Christianity (e.g., Silent Night) cross the line into a religious devotion rather than a neutral, secular celebration.” The MAAF objected to the nativity program and filed an IG complaint. The complaint stated:
This [nativity] violates the Constitution and the mandates of the command to support all belief while privileging none. The event is billed as a ‘holiday’ event but it is nothing but a Christian activity…it is…clearly and exclusively biased toward Christianity. Also of concern is the likelihood that the predominantly Muslim local population will see the US military as a Christian force…This event threatens US security and violates the Constitution as well as command policy.
The Command Religious Program (CRP) – the Navy Chaplains – removed the living nativity program from the holiday festivities. Whether this was done under advisement from base leadership or if the Chaplains did so of their own volition is unclear. It does not appear an official order was given to remove the program.
If the U.S. Government – including a branch of the U.S. Military – took action against a group or event because of religious content, it would be a violation of policies guarding against discrimination based upon religion. The U.S. Constitution declares clearly, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” When Americans of faith are intimidated by atheists threatening lawsuits, they need to remember the rights they have as citizens and stand for the freedoms they are granted in this nation. If they don’t, then brave troops who are right now in harm’s way for those very freedoms will have their own liberties taken away. The aggressive political maneuvering by groups like the MAAF has a direct, measurable and negative impact on troops.
Blake Page claims religion is the reason he resigned this past week from being a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. Five months prior to graduation, Page asserted he felt discriminated against for being “non-religious.” The president of the West Point Secular Student Alliance (an affiliate of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers) and the Director of Military Religious Freedom Foundation Affairs at West Point declared in a vitriolic blog post:
While there are certainly numerous problems with the developmental program at West Point and all service academies, the tipping point of my decision to resign was the realization that countless officers here and throughout the military are guilty of blatantly violating the oaths they swore to defend the Constitution. These men and women are criminals, complicit in light of day defiance of the Uniform Code of Military Justice through unconstitutional proselytism, discrimination against the non-religious and establishing formal policies to reward, encourage and even at times require sectarian religious participation. These transgressions are nearly always committed in the name of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity.
Page asserts the U.S. Military Academy makes prayers mandatory, that cadets participating in religious activities receive preferential treatment and that officers in general display open disrespect for non-religious cadets. He wrote in his resignation letter, “I do not wish to be in any way associated with an institution which willfully disregards the Constitution of the United States of America by enforcing policies which run counter to the same.” School officials confirmed Page’s resignation was accepted and that he is being discharged honorably. Spokesman Francis DeMaro, Jr., however, stated the former cadet’s claim that prayer is mandatory is untrue. He said, “The Academy holds both official and public ceremonies where an invocation and benediction may be conducted, but prayer is voluntary. As officers, cadets will be responsible for soldiers who represent America’s great diversity in faith and ethnic background. The Academy provides cadets the opportunity to foster an understanding regarding the fundamental dignity and worth of all.”
The founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Mikey Weinstein, called Page’s resignation an act of great courage. He claimed, “We have the Christian Taliban running amok unchecked in the technologically most lethal organization ever recorded in human kind. There’s no problem except that we have a small document called the Constitution that separates state and religion.” Weinstein, however, commended West Point for providing Page with an honorable discharge and not punishing him for his actions. Not everyone views Page’s resignation as an act of courage. Charles Clymer, a former 2013 classmate who was forced to separate from the Academy due to medical reasons, wrote an open letter on the Secular Student Alliance’s Facebook page. Describing himself both as a Christian and an “aggressive, outspoken liberal,” Clymer noted his outspokenness regarding the “injustice of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, the limited career options of women who serve our country in uniform, and…a very broken system of addressing sexual assault at the Academy and in the Armed Forces in general (among other things).” In his address to Page, he relayed:
I’m angry and disappointed with you over this article, and I say that as someone who very much supports the separation of Church and State. I believe religion belongs in one’s private life, and apart from certain, limited allowances for those who have a faith they practice, government employees should never be given preferential treatment and upon such instances, leaders who allow that to happen should be counseled and/or punished. . . . I never, not even once, witnessed, heard about, or even thought it implied that non-religious cadets face discrimination of any kind at the Academy. I saw widespread homophobia and sexism but never any negative sentiment towards those cadets who identified as Atheist or Agnostic. In fact, the closest thing I ever observed that looked like a pro-Christian bias were the few cadets who believed Islam is evil, and that was a very small fraction of our class. The vast majority of Christian cadets treated non-Christian cadets with respect insofar as their beliefs are concerned. And I should again point out that I spent the better part of two years calling out homophobia and sexism when I saw it, and it wasn’t as though I was “known” for being a Christian in our class. I didn’t exactly spend my free time in Christian-based organizations or attend church services, regularly. I did sing in Gospel Choir for a few semesters but never heard any sort of anti-Atheist remarks during my participation with them. They treated everyone with respect, regardless of faith, gender, or sexuality. My point is that, try as I might, with all my stereotypical, sensitive liberal feelers in tune, I can’t remember ever seeing or hearing about negative experiences of Atheists, Agnostics, or other Non-Christians at the Academy. . . . As a person who prides myself on maintaining honesty in regards to how minorities (of any kind, including spiritual) are treated, I can say with confidence that are you are either blatantly lying or, at the very least, being incredibly misleading with how you represent the Academy’s religious environment.
Clymer noted Page’s poor performance as a cadet, having failed in multiple leadership positions. Page was facing separation from the Academy for medical reasons related to mental health, which likely contributed to his poor performance. He struggled at West Point following his father’s suicide. Diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety, he was disqualified from being commissioned as an officer. He asked to resign rather than face separation, a proposition accepted by Academy officials. According to Clymer, Page “went behind their backs and claimed the resignation was done to protest Christian Fundamentalists at the Academy, which is a whole lot of bull$h!#.” Page responded by saying he was unconcerned about the perception of others. “That’s really fine. I am not trying to talk about myself. I am trying to talk about church and state.”
It appears, nonetheless, that Page’s actions are actually more about himself than about the separation of church and state. Press reports regarding his resignation have generally failed to note he was facing separation from West Point due to mental health related issues. Weinstein and others will cite this as one of the “countless” instances of “discrimination” against non-theists. The truth of the matter is that this vocal and aggressive minority seeks to overthrow the rights of theists by removing the free exercise of religion in public. They believe essentially that any public demonstration of faith should be deemed illegal – viewing people of faith (particularly evangelical Christians) as “criminals” and extremists (i.e., “Christian Taliban running amok unchecked”). It is time for theists to actively and prolifically defend their rights, rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.
* * * * *
Blake Page, “Why I Don’t Want to be a West Point Graduate”
Charles Clymer, “The Truth about Cadet Blake Page and Why West Point is Not Anti-Atheist”
Michael Hill, The Huffington Post, “Blake Page, West Point Cadet, Quits Military Academy Over Religion”
Billy Hallowell, The Blaze, “Atheist West Point Cadet Quits the Academy, Citing ‘Christian Proselytizing’ & ‘Criminal’ Constitutional Violations”
Moni Basu, CNN, “West Point Cadet Quits Over Religion”