Military Religion Question Answered: Email

The US military has been accused of allowing its members to illegally use its official government email system to distribute messages with religious content (see background here).  These actions have been called “unConstitutional” and “a violation of military regulations.”

This e-mail distribution has violated the separation of church and state [and] violates well established [military regulations].

In one specific incident, a base Chaplain asked the staff to forward a Bible study announcement.  Did that message violate regulations, or any other policy or standard?

The shortest, most accurate answer: No.

Since the regulation that was allegedly violated was not cited (as is often the case, given the previous examples), it is difficult to know what, precisely, the offended persons felt was a violation of regulations.  Was it the fact the email was a “mass e-mail?”  Was it because it contained religious content?  In one specific citation, Jason Leopold’s article did note that some people complained about

the fact that religious announcements were not supposed to be circulated using e-mail accounts maintained by the federal government.

Were those people correct?

Did the Chaplain’s religious announcement violate military regulations by being on a government system?

Contrary to the accusation, military regulations actually support the actions of the Chaplain.  Chaplains are directed in the regulations of every service to create and maintain programs to support the religious needs of servicemembers.  For example, Air Force Policy Directive (AFPD) 52-1, which governs the Air Force Chaplain service, says

Chaplains…design and implement Chaplain Service programs to meet the spiritual and religious needs of assigned Air Force members, their families and other authorized personnel.

Since the publicly available information indicates the Chaplain was announcing a “program to meet the spiritual and religious needs” of servicemembers, he was fulfilling his duties under the regulations, not violating them.

In addition, in the original post of this question, USAFChaplain correctly noted that current Air Force guidance emphasizes that “Chaplain programs will receive communications support as would comparable staff activities.”  Thus, if other staff programs were entitled to receive base-wide email messaging (as they most certainly were), the base-wide distribution of the message was wholly within Air Force policy guidance.

As with other accusations that only make vague allusions to military regulations, it is difficult to “prove” a negative.  No military regulation, Department of Defense policy, or Constitutional clause restricts Chaplains (or others acting on their behalf) from announcing a Bible study in an email on a government communications system.

While people may presume “that religious announcements [are] not supposed to be circulated using e-mail accounts maintained by the federal government,” that presumption is incorrect.

The Chaplain’s announcement was in compliance with regulations regarding the use of government email systems.

Did the email violate military regulations due to its religious content?

While this point is made moot by the discussion above, it is educational to note that there are no special regulations for email with religious content.  The regulations regarding the government email system are the same regardless of content (see DoD 5500.7-R paragraph 2-301.a, available here).

Despite this rather obvious fact, “religious content” on a government system is a frequent “violation” that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation cites.  In 2006 the MRFF cited email content in a complaint about the US Air Force Academy.  In each of its three lawsuits since then (two dismissed, one in litigation), it has repeated the accusation that the military permits the “unConstitutional use” of government email that contains references to religion, as with the Chaplain’s Bible study announcement.  In its “evidence” that the military promotes religious beliefs, the MRFF lawsuit cites

Constitutionally impermissible support for illegal use of official military e-mail accounts to send e-mails containing religious rhetoric.

Like many of the accusations in the lawsuit, the vague allegation is supported by no specifics.  However, the 2006 MRFF complaint cited an Air Force Academy Staff Sergeant who sent a “Happy Thanksgiving” email (that contained Bible verses) to a specific group of friends and co-workers.

As noted previously, military regulations do not specifically address religious content, even in personal emails.  The “Revised Interim Guidelines” published not long after the Air Force Academy “scandal” made this rather apparent statement of the obvious:

General rules regarding use of government computers apply to personal religious matters as they do for other personal matters.

Thus, any application of the regulations to a personal (unofficial) email, as with the Staff Sergeant’s “Happy Thanksgiving” message, would have to apply equally regardless of the content.  The fact that the Staff Sergeant included religious text in her email is therefore irrelevant to any Air Force regulation.  With regard to applying the rules, her message is the equivalent of “Have a great four day weekend!”

The equal applicability of the regulations regardless of content sometimes gets missed (or intentionally ignored) by those on both sides of the debate.  For example, an activist might complain about an Air Force member using a Biblical quote in their email signature block, using the same rhetoric about violations of military regulations, unConstitutional conduct, etc.  Or, if an Air Force member who has such a signature block is told to remove it, they might respond as if they are being mistreated for their faith.  In this particular example, neither is entirely correct.  (An example of this type of incident occurred in 2004.)

With regard to the Air Force, Air Force Instruction (AFI) 33-119 says that

Users will not add slogans, quotes, special backgrounds, special stationeries, digital images, unusual fonts, etc., to the body of their electronic messages.

Thus, a strict application of this AFI means that no one is allowed to have any quote of any content in their official email signature block.  The activist is correct, then, that the Bible quote violates the regulation—but not because it is a religious quotation.  Conversely, the military member may have a legitimate objection if the regulation is selectively enforced and only their signature block is restricted, while their peers are allowed to maintain quotes in their signature blocks. (That is a topic for another time.)

This rule refers specifically to official email (which is the context of the AFI).  While possible, it is unlikely that this rule would be (properly) applied against a military member who used their email for an authorized unofficial use.

The referenced email was in compliance with regulations with regard to the inclusion of religious content.

In the referenced article, Jason Leopold also cites three other instances of ‘inappropriate mass emails,’ but there is insufficient publicly available information with which to draw a conclusion.  Leopold cites no specific concern other than lamenting their wide distribution (specifically emphasizing the number of recipients) and the fact that they had Christian content.  As noted above, wide distribution and sectarian content are not inherently prohibited on a government system.

With respect to the incident at Creech, the Air Force ultimately opted to give the Judge Advocate General voluntary oversight of Chaplain distributions.  They said:

The Chaplain agreed to allow [the JAG] to review content of future publications/flyers…[They] 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…

There does not appear to be an Air Force-wide “requirement for Chapel events to be…announced by the Chapel.”  However, it could be a local Creech policy, which would be the Commander’s prerogative.

Requiring legal review of religious publications is a troublesome prospect, but is indicative of the defensive posture that the military has chosen to take in the face of public accusations.  Regrettably, no military official defended the Chaplain, even though his actions were entirely within the bounds of all known policies and procedures.

Two final notes.

First, Leopold’s article noted that a portion of the advertised Bible study was entitled “Moses the Leader: How would you like to lead 1,000,000 whiners?”  Leopold said this caused “numerous recipients [to complain] about the negative stereotype of Jews.”  Besides the fact that “whining” does not appear to be a widely accepted Jewish stereotype, the same object lesson and the same terminology (“whiners” or its equally negative derivatives) have been used in both Christian and Jewish studies.  In fact, with only the title it is impossible to know whether the study is Christian or Jewish.

Second: the accusation that the email announcement violated the separation of church and state.  Without going into excruciating detail, it is sufficient to say that if the military does not favor a particular religion or ideology, then it is complying with Constitutional directives regarding church and state.  Since government communication systems are open to the spiritual needs of all servicemembers (as shown by messages announcing Jewish, Islamic, Wiccan, Buddhist, Freethinker, and other meetings), the accusation that the Chaplain’s use of the government’s system violated church and state is “sensational” but unfounded.

The fallout from this incident did yield an interesting bit on the hypersensitivity and volatility of the topic of religion in the military:  The founder of the MRFF, Michael Weinstein, emailed a heated message about Constitutional violations to the wing commander the same day the original offending email was sent out.