Weinstein’s Crusade, or Tilting at Windmills

Mr. Michael Weinstein has said his “fight is far from over” in his self-described war against evangelical Christianity in the military, despite the recent dismissal of his lawsuit against the Air Force Academy.  According to his blog, Weinstein believes that the suit was dismissed on a “technicality;” once that technicality is overcome, the suit will be renewed.  Judge James Parker dismissed the suit because it contained only “vague allegations” and no evidence of harm from people who lacked standing—because they weren’t cadets.  Weinstein was unfazed and said:

“Religious bias and the outrageous violations of the separation of church and state continue to spread rampantly throughout our military” and that the “military is full of evangelizing fundamentalists.”

While the issue of religion in the military has been removed from the courts for now, it remains to be seen if it will be enlivened in the new Congress in January.  Various amendments to the 2007 Defense Authorization Act were proposed in order to respond to complaints from various parties regarding military religion.  Ultimately, no amendments were permitted, but the Act did rescind the most recent Air Force and Navy policies on religion until Congress could debate the issue next year.  Weinstein called the decision, reached in a congressional compromise, “red meat” for religious conservatives.  According to the Associated Press, Democrats generally oppose the language that would ‘guarantee a chaplain’s religious free exercise.’ Instead, they may try to increase restrictions to prevent what they describe as military “proselytizing.”  Steve Israel (D, NY) has said that Congress “will…work with the military on a new set of guidelines that reflect America’s mainstream values and ensure good order and discipline on our military bases.”  Given that the Democrats will control Congress beginning in January, the outcome is uncertain. (Air Force Times

In an effort to keep his cause in the spotlight, Mr. Michael Weinstein has renewed his self-described ‘litigation and agitation’ of religion in the military by filing a grievance with the Inspector General (IG) at the Pentagon, as reported in the Washington Post and Fox News.  His complaint—which was announced to the media prior to being received at the IG office—alleges multiple regulation violations and Constitutional infractions when uniformed servicemen appeared on a video promoting the Christian Embassy evangelical organization.  Weinstein said the video was “a testament to systemic problems of religious bias and constitutional neglect that continue to occur within the United States armed forces.”  The Americans United for the Separation of Church and State claimed that “if the investigation finds that the officials in the Christian Embassy film defied military regulations by appearing in uniform, Weinstein will push for immediate courts martial.”  NPR claims that the MRFF is considering filing a class action lawsuit.  It is worth noting that Harpers contributor Jeff Sharlet claims to have “broken” this story a month ago, though neither Weinstein nor Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post give him any credit. 

Mr. Weinstein’s use of the Inspector General is interesting.  Evidently, he wishes to avoid having a court throw out another case due to his lack of standing, given that neither he nor his organization are in the Air Force, nor do they specify any complainant who is.  Weinstein’s access to the Inspector General—which is essentially an internal oversight function—is tenuous at best.  If he brings his complaint as an outside party, there do not appear to be any specific guidelines (or Air Force obligations) regarding his complaint resolution.  If his complaint is brought under the auspices of AFI 90-301, which governs the complaint program of the IG, then he would technically be bound by it as well.  This is important because it determines to what degree Weinstein is successful in his crusade.  For example, he can bring a complaint as a third party (he has no official interest in either party of the complaint) (1.45.6); however, he would only receive acknowledgement that his complaint had been received, not any information regarding its resolution ( 

Using the IG does, however, place him in a unique political position.  If the IG refuses his standing to complain, he has generated grounds for a further public relations campaign against the AF and another potential lawsuit.  If the IG takes the case and finds fault in anything, then he will appear vindicated.  If the IG takes the case and finds no basis for his complaint, then Weinstein can simply complain that the AF can’t independently investigate itself and that even the IG is overrun by right-wing evangelicals.  In short, he’s got nothing to lose and much—primarily significant publicity—to gain.  In fact, he has explicitly stated that he is using this incident not so the IG can address his complaint but only to gather information so that he can “fashion it into a dagger and then stab at the heart of this unconstitutional, wretched, vile, darkness at the Pentagon. This unconstitutional darkness, we will stab at it with our dagger until we kill it.”

His organization, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, also distributed a “compliance report” that contains a list of alleged abuses of religion in the military.  The first is a repeat from his opinion article some months ago that railed on a US Air Force squadron for having “Crusader” symbology in their emblem.  The second is a Bible verse that appears over the door of an Air and Space Basic classroom doorway at Maxwell Air Force Base.  The third is a “Happy Thanksgiving” email sent from an official email account (af.mil suffix) which contains Bible verses.  The fourth is “illegal and coercive proselytizing” conducted by Force Ministries and Officers’ Christian Fellowship. 

The Crusaders have had their symbology for years (and there is no record of a complaint from within the organization).  The offending Bible verse (Isaiah 40:31) is interpreted by Weinstein to mean that “only those Christian officers who ‘wait upon the Lord,’ apparently, will ‘mount up with wings as Eagles.'”  He fails to note that the verse is actually Jewish in origin.  With regard to the offending email, limited personal use of office email is permitted; the sender addressed the message to specific people, not an entire distribution list, and as a Staff Sergeant did not outrank anyone she sent the message to.  Weinstein does not document any “proselytizing” by any evangelical organization, only noting that the goal of specific evangelical organizations is to influence the military with Christianity.  There is nothing unconstitutional about an organization saying they want to evangelize the military.  Even the offending video was made some time ago in 2005.

The unattributed statement of the AU regarding courts martial is irrelevant, as Weinstein would have no say in the punishment of active duty officers, and it is unlikely that such a “crime” would warrant a court martial.  NPR’s implication of a class-action lawsuit is also moot, as Weinstein lacks standing given that he is an observing third party.

Weinstein’s activism must be countered, or else his goal of removing Christianity from the military may continue unimpeded.  It is regrettable that there does not seem to be a means to counter his efforts without aiding his infamy.  Notably, after his initial press release Weinstein received virtually no coverage until Rush Limbaugh picked up the story in late December (at which point Weinstein stoked his media machine and garnered significant attention).  Even this site might be furthering a story that might otherwise die in the public arena.

Though his complaining does not have significant public traction, he may still affect change in the military, so his overtly antagonistic views toward Christianity in the military must be countered.  This is particularly true in light of his aggressive accusations against Officers’ Christian Fellowship and similar organizations.  As noted on page 16 of his “compliance report,” Weinstein takes issue with the mere existence of a non-profit, private organization that has no official military connection.  Weinstein appears intent to not only remove Christianity from the military, but also to remove any potential Christian influence that might originate outside the military itself.  His perception of Constitutional religious liberties is evident.

Weinstein, a professed Jew and member of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, is a self-described activist and “watchdog” of evangelical Christianity in the military.  He is hunting for something to decry; or, in the words of the Alliance Defense Fund in a Focus on the Family interview, Weinstein is “throwing mud against the wall and seeing what sticks.”  These unfounded and inflated allegations are another example of Weinstein trolling the military for something about which to complain, and the military will suffer all the more because of his search for notoriety.

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