By Jason Leopold
A couple of weeks ago, military command and staff officers at Creech Air Force base in Nevada circulated an e-mail at the request of the senior base chaplain to all personnel stationed at the facility, inviting them to attend a Bible study class in which the topic for discussion characterized Jews as “whiners.”
The mass e-mail, sent to personnel of various religious persuasions, is the latest in a long list of constitutional offenses committed by fundamentalist Christian chaplains stationed at U.S. military facilities around the world, many of whom have publicly displayed insensitivity and outright hostility to non-Christians serving in the military.
In this most recent example, the flyer announcing the Bible study at Creech was widely distributed to Creech Air Force base’s e-mail list, which is prohibited by long-standing military regulations. The title of the study, which was scheduled to be held Wednesday, “Moses the Leader: How would you like to lead 1,000,000 whiners?” angered numerous recipients of the e-mail, who complained about the negative stereotype of Jews and the fact that religious announcements were not supposed to be circulated using e-mail accounts maintained by the federal government.
Air Force Capt. Melissa Danley, the military personnel chief at Creech, sent the initial announcement from her official government e-mail account on Jan. 16. Danley did not respond to phone calls or e-mails for comment. The 432nd Wing Commander’s Office sent out another announcement about an hour later.
This is not the first time that Air Force base e-mail lists have been hijacked by both chaplains and senior Air Force officials to proselytize base personnel. It’s a frequent practice at numerous military installations.
Last year, it was revealed that a presentation titled “Purpose Driven Airmen”, which incorporated the teachings of megachurch leader Rick Warren and creationism as a means of suicide prevention was sent to 5,000 servicemen and women at RAF Lakenheath, the largest U.S. Air Force base in England. And the practice continues at Lakenheath, the most recent example being the Jan. 13, 2009 MASS e-mail distribution of a flyer for the Christian movie “Fireproof”, sent out by the base’s senior command NCO’s [non-commissioned officers] at the request of a chaplain.
Another example of a recent mass e-mail distribution at a U.S Air Force installation was one where the content of the message contained an essay by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Bruce L. Fister, the executive director of the Officers’ Christian Fellowship. The essay began by posing the question, “Why do you serve in our military?”
The answer was, “we serve our Lord by serving our nation, our family or prospective future family, and so that we have something that we can share with God’s people in need. But what is the greatest need? Why do we serve our God as Joshua exhorted? We serve our God because of what Jesus did for us on the Cross,” Fister’s wrote in the e-mail. “We are blessed to be able, through our lives in the military, to demonstrate the message of salvation to those who have not heard or received it. It was by God’s grace through faith that we were brought fully into His family and presence. Our love for Him motivates us to serve Him in our military, to serve and work for our families, and to serve and work to enable the message of salvation to reach those who have yet to accept Him as Lord and Savior.”
The Officer’s Christian Fellowship is an organization made up of more than 14,000 officers with chapters on virtually every U.S. military installation worldwide. The group’s mission is to “create a spiritually transformed U.S. military, with Ambassadors for Christ in uniform, empowered by the Holy Spirit.”
As for the flyer at Creech and the content used by the chaplains to describe Jews, that’s not a first either.
Army chaplains made similar characterizations in Bible study guides that were housed on the U.S. Army’s Fort Leavenworth website, which was seen as a violation of the law mandating the separation between church and state because the Fort Leavenworth website is maintained by the federal government. The Army swiftly removed the study guides following a report I wrote in June 2007.
Like the study guides at Fort Leavenworth, the Creech Air Force base flyer made its way to Air Force Academy Graduate Mikey Weinstein, the founder and president of the watchdog group the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). MRFF immediately fired off a letter to Col. Chris Chambliss at Creech demanding answers.
“This e-mail distribution has violated the separation of church and state manifestly found in our U.S. Constitution’s 1st Amendment and Clause 3, Article 6 of the body of our Constitution completely prohibiting any “religious test”, Weinstein wrote to Chambliss the same day the e-mail was circulated. “It also specifically violates well established” military regulations.
“The title of the first bible study series styled as “Leadership Lesson From The Bible” is “Moses the Leader: How would you like to lead 1,000,000 whiners?” is astonishingly offensive and egregious in and of itself. MRFF demands that you immediately cease and desist from any future distributions that are unconstitutional and violate well established [Air Force Regulation] and [Air Force Instructions]. MRFF also demands that those who violated these bedrock laws and regulations be punished.”
Col. Chambliss replied five days later saying he would not discuss the matter. He also declined my request for an interview. A Pentagon spokesperson did not return calls for comment either.
But Weinstein, a former Air Force Judge Advocate General, legal counsel during the Reagan administration and former general counsel to Texas billionaire and two-time presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, aggressively pursued the issue and insisted that officials at Creech take corrective measures.
On Tuesday, Weinstein’s organization received a letter from Col. Jeffrey Palmer, the staff Judge Advocate at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Maj. Gary Pulliam, a member of Palmer’s staff, went to Creech to meet with chaplains and other officials at the base about the insensitive nature of the flyer and the violations related to mass distribution announcing religious events using government equipment.
Pulliam “addressed the need for greater sensitivity in development of, and publicity for, religious education programs as well as necessity of avoiding negative stereotypes or inferences which may denigrate other religious groups,” Palmer wrote in a letter to MRFF.
“The Chaplain agreed to allow us review content of future publications/flyers for compliance,” Palmer said. “The Major also reviewed the requirement for Chapel events to be sponsored and announced by the Chapel, not via command channels or ‘spam’ to avoid the appearance of leadership endorsement of any one faith, program or ideology…The Chaplain was receptive to our inputs and was willing to include us in the preparation of any future Chapel-sponsored materials. Of course, our goal is to ensure that the Chaplaincy is able to minister to spiritual needs of the uniformed services, while respecting and, not infringing upon, the diversity of individual belief systems.”
“It is rare indeed when I can say that the Air Force did precisely the right thing at the right time to fix this disaster,” Weinstein said. Staff Judge Advocate Col. Jeff Palmer immediately saw the salient constitutional issues involved after communicating with MRFF. He both swiftly and professionally executed exactly the right mechanisms to alleviate the violations. Col. Palmer’s leadership turned a disgrace into a joint MRFF-Air Force success story. Unfortunately, JAGS are not commanders. It is the military commanders who should be held responsible for their own actions of unbridled sectarian religious promotion as well as unconstitutional Christian proselytizing by their chaplains and subordinate staff.”
For Weinstein, who has been battling the military for the more than four years in and out of federal court over its “pattern and practice of constitutionally impermissible promotions of religious beliefs,” the outcome underscored the urgent need to implement reforms specifically related to the way the military deals with religion.
He said there is already “a generous amount of latitude for armed forces personnel to comprehensively practice and celebrate their faith, or no faith, while serving their country.”
“But there is a line,” Weinstein said. “The Air Force’s official book of core values even states that religion is a matter of individual conscience and that no one, especially commanders, should ever attempt to change or coercively influence the religious view of subordinate servicemen and women. Look, it’s quite simple really. When one proudly dons the uniform, there is only one “religious symbol” like the Cross, Star of David, or Crescent Moon; It’s called the American flag. Further, there is only one “religious scripture” like the Bible, Torah or Quran; It’s called the American Constitution. Lastly, there is only one “religious faith”; and it’s called American patriotism. If someone can’t handle that, then please get the hell out of the military.”
Over the past several months, MRFF has seen a surge in correspondence from U.S. military personnel around the world complaining about proselytizing and anti-Semitism. MRFF has chronicled more than 11,000 complaints over the past four years from members of the military, several thousand in 2008 alone.
His organization’s involvement in several high-profile incidents has had an immediate impact, but so far has not resulted in Congressional hearings to further investigate and assess just how widespread the problems truly are.
But for the victims and their families the results have been bittersweet.
Recently, MRFF exposed the brutal beating of a Fort Benning Army soldier who was the victim of anti-Semitism. The incident and the publicity that surrounded the case after MRFF became involved led the Army to discharge one soldier and reprimand drill sergeants who used anti-Semitic slurs against the Army Private.
But MRFF wasn’t satisfied with the way the Army treated the soldier, Pvt. Michael C. Handman, who was transferred to a different unit where he continued to endure anti-Semitism. Earlier this month, Handman received an honorable medical discharge. The Army never asserted that it could protect him from the possibility of further anti-Semitic attacks.
In the meantime, MRFF and Army Spc. Dustin Chalker have filed a federal lawsuit against the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Robert Gates claiming “a noxiously unconstitutional pattern and practice of fundamentalist Christian oppression in our U.S. armed forces.” Chalker is a combat medic who was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained in Iraq.
On at least three occasions beginning in December 2007, Chalker claimed he was directed to attend military events, one of which was a barbecue, where an Army battalion chaplain led a Christian prayer ceremony for military personnel. Chalker, who said he is nonreligious, asked his superiors for permission to leave the prayer sessions and on each occasion his request to be excused was denied, according to the lawsuit.
Additionally, the lawsuit claims the military has actively promoted and supported systemic, fundamentalist Christian programs and events to the exclusion of other beliefs.
The complaint says the U.S. Air Force was listed as an official sponsor of the Evangelical Christian Motocross Ministry known as “Team Faith,” who says their mission is “to infiltrate professional racing circuits and other Action Sports events all over the US and Canada” and “lead extreme sports athletes to Christ and disciple them so that they will in-turn, lead others involved in or interested in the sport to Christ.”
“Team Faith’s” uniforms contained a logo that was a combination of the U.S. Air Force and Team Faith logos, and the U.S. Air Force logos was also visible on team members motorcycles and on ramps.