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The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), headed by Mikey Weinstein, was contacted by seven individuals from the U.S. Air Force Academy (four cadets, two faculty members, and one staff member; six of whom Christians) regarding an announcement made in the dining facility that “Ask an Atheist Days” would be held on 19-20 March on the third floor of Fairchild Hall, an academic building. According to a member of the Cadets Freethinkers Club, the days are being held in protest over the Academy’s correct refusal to permit their group to participate in Special Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE), a long-running program at the Academy in which one night per week is set aside for various religious groups and external para-church organizations hold religious meetings for the cadets. The Cadets Freethinkers Club has been refused recognition as a SPIRE group by the Academy on the grounds that they are not a religious group, and are permitted to operate only as a club. An MRFF client who is a member of the club explained the motivation behind the event, stating the group believes it is within its rights, as a non-religious club, to set up a table and have their event announced on the same basis as other non-religious groups. MRFF believes the group should be able to participate in SPIRE, but disagrees with the manner in which the club has protested the Academy’s refusal to recognize them as a SPIRE group. According to Weinstein, the announcement made to a captive audience of cadets in the dining hall and permitting the club to set up a table in an academic building is similar to allowing an “Ask a Muslim Day” or “Ask an Evangelical Christian Day.” He remarked, “They are proselytizing for atheism.”
It may come as a surprise to some that I disagree wholeheartedly with Weinstein on this point. Weinstein and the MRFF have failed to distinguish between “proselytization” and “evangelism.” On the one hand, military members are prohibited from forcing unwanted and intrusive attempts upon others in order to convert them to a particular religious (or non-religious) view. That is, loosely, how the Department of Defense defines “proselytization.” “Evangelism,” on the other hand, occurs when military members discuss their faith (or non-faith) with others who are willing to discuss such matters. This is completely permissible.
Maj. Lonzo Wallace, Executive Officer to Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, informed MRFF that the Academy is allowing the “Ask an Atheist Days” to proceed. Weinstein objects, believing that, “Religious neutrality means religious neutrality. Whether it’s saying that Jesus is your lord and savior or saying that there is no god makes no difference. Neither is a neutral position, and neither can be promoted by the United States Air Force Academy.” Weinstein and the MRFF have failed to grasp the fact that permitting an event is not the same as promoting a particular religious (or non-religious) view. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. Therefore, if the Academy were to prevent the atheists from setting up a table and permitting cadets to ask about their perspective, then the Air Force would be guilty of violating the Bill of Rights.
Todd Starnes, Fox News, “Why does Air Force Academy encourage atheism, prosecute Christianity?” (21 MAR 2014)
Chris Rodda, Huffington Post, “MRFF Complains About Atheists Proselytizing at Air Force Academy? Surely Pigs Are Flying!” (19 MAR 2014)
Bryant Jordan, Military.com News, “Air Force Academy Sanctions ‘Ask an Atheist’ Days” (20 MAR 2014)
Tom Roeder, Military Religious Freedom Foundation, “Mikey Weinstein enraged by evangelical atheists” (19 MAR 2014)
Mikey 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)
The Military Officers’ Association of America (MOAA) is the largest and most influential association of military officers in the United States. Their mission is to speak up for a strong national defense and to represent the interests of military members and their families at every stage of their careers. As the Obama Administration revealed its proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 defense budget on 4 March, MOAA noted that the Pentagon is “shifting personnel costs onto the backs of servicemembers to free up funding for other programs.” The proposed budget includes slashing personnel compensation and healthcare benefits, a 20% cut in headquarters operating budgets, a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round in FY 2017, and $159.3 billion in modernization and recapitalization of equipment and facilities. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel defended the proposed budget from those who feared that steep cuts in the plan would leave the United States vulnerable in an increasingly dangerous global situation. Overall, the Obama administration plans to slash defense spending to about $495 billion in 2015 (about $113 billion less than the levels contemplated in last year’s budget proposal).
Specific cuts impacting military members directly include a military pay cap at a 1% raise (-.8% below the private sector wage growth) through 2017, with a 1.5% raise in 2018 and a 1.8% raise in 2019. During the 1990s a 13.5% military pay gap between the military and the private sector led to extensive retention problems. There is also a call for massive changes for TRICARE (the medical program for military personnel). The proposed budget would eliminate the existing TRICARE Prime, Standard, and Extra options for military family members and for retired veterans under age 65. The options would be replaced by a consolidated health care plan that would be most similar to the current Standard / Extra options. The new plan is a fee-for-service program that will require all beneficiaries to cover the costs of co-pays and a deductible out-of-pocket. Retired veterans will be required under the plan to pay an annual participation fee. Access would not be guaranteed under the proposal. In addition to these costs, the plan will also establish an annual TRICARE for Life (TFL) enrollment fee. The fee will be based upon a percentage of retired pay, rising to 2% of pay per year in 2018. It is expected that there will be a dramatic increase in pharmacy co-pays, and all beneficiaries will be required to obtain their maintenance medication refills through either a medical treatment facility (MTF) or the mail-order pharmacy. The proposed budget also calls for increases in housing cost-shares for military families. It increases the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) out-of-pocket expenses until military members pay 5% of the cost. If enacted, the BAH cuts will become effective upon a military member’s next Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move. MOAA notes on its website, “In total, the annual loss of purchasing power for active duty personnel would be severe.” A sergeant (E-5), for example, will lose nearly $5,000, while a captain (O-3) will lose nearly $6,000.
In addition to the cuts impacting personnel personally, the Department of Defense proposed slashing the number of active-duty Army personnel from 450,000 down to 440,000, less than 10% below its size before the 9/11 attacks. Army National Guard and Army Reserve units will draw down by 5%, and the Army’s helicopter force structure will be reduced by 8%. The active Army’s helicopter fleet will be slashed by 25%. The Navy will remove 11 ships from its operational inventory in order to modernize them and then return them to service with what is hoped to be greater capability and extended lifespans. The Marines will draw down to 182,000, though an additional 900 members will be assigned to embassies. The Air Force will be forced to retire its A-10 and U-2 fleets.
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.