Military Religion Question Answered: Advertising a Bible Study

Recently, an email from an officer announcing a Bible study at Kirtland AFB was the subject of a complaint from Michael Weinstein’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation, leading to the question here, “Can a military officer advertise a Bible study?”

Some relevant quotes from the original complaint, as sent to (and publicized by) the MRFF by an enlisted Airman:

During the past 6-7 months a unit commander, who is now the Deputy Group Commander decided to send mass e-mails to the wing regarding bible study sessions. These are sessions that were led by the individual sending the e-mails…a person in a command position, clearly a conflict of interest. A lot of us expressed concern about the perception that leadership is endorsing what should clearly be a chaplain endorsed and led activity.
Just imagine the following scenario… if you were a young Airman wanting to look good for a Below the Zone package, the Deputy Group Commander is leading a bible study, a young impressionable person might show up to be visible to leadership and seeing the example of the Deputy Group Commander might decide to encourage others to do so as well.

This kind of activity is in the purview of the Chaplain Corps, not people in leadership positions. Some of us were told to just delete the e-mails. Being a religious…and an NCO I could not stand idly by as the latest e-mail, from a person in a command position NOT the Chaplain, showed up in my inbox. Being in fear of possible retribution for speaking out through the channels normally available, I decided to contact MRFF…

What do you think the NCO wanted to happen?  What is the military obligated to do?  More specifically, what exactly is the issue?  Was it: 

“…mass e-mails to the wing…”, or
“…sessions…led by…a person in a command position”, or
“…activity is in the purview of the Chaplain Corps, not…leadership”?

It is unclear what the precise complaint is, but the latter two are the easiest to address first.

“…sessions…led by…a person in a command position”

First, no Air Force, military, or government policy or regulation limits a military member from leading Bible studies, regardless of their rank or position.  In fact, it would be a clear violation of religious freedom to explicitly prohibit a military member of any rank from conducting or participating in religious services of their choosing — not that Weinstein’s “religious freedom” foundation would ever point that out.  Thus, the fact the “session” is led by a “person in a command position” is irrelevant to any complaint.

The complainant’s hypothetical scenario in which a subordinate might attend to ingratiate himself to a leader says more about the character of the subordinate than it does the leader.  More bluntly, it is ridiculously untenable logic:  Would the NCO suggest military officers be prohibited from attending church, synagogue, their mosque, or their atheist fellowship to prevent the possibility a subordinate might attend just to ‘kiss up’ to them?  In short, the fact the study was “led by…a person in a command position” is not a legitimate or actionable complaint.  Quite the contrary; it is a protected activity.

“…activity is in the purview of the Chaplain Corps, not…leadership”

Second, as to a Bible study being “the purview of the Chaplain Corps,” the complainant makes an error similar to the one previously made by Chris RoddaNo regulation isolates “religious activities” to the “Chaplain Corps.”  In fact, the Chaplain is the advisor to the commander, not the other way around.  The commander, not the Chaplain, is ultimately responsible for the protection of free exercise and religious freedom in the military, as noted in Department of Defense Directives.  His responsibility is to protect the free exercise of all military members, not just Chaplains.

Of course, this argument is moot in this controversy:  The original email notes the study is “Chaplain-sponsored” — meaning it is being conducted under the purview of the military’s officially established Chaplaincy programs.  Still, the “activity” is not restricted to the Chaplain Corps, despite personal feelings to the contrary.

“…mass e-mails to the wing…”

The remaining complaint is about “mass e-mails,” which can be somewhat more complex.  The first question would be to determine Kirtland’s email policy.  The policy is not publicly available, but another base’s is, and it may be similar:

The e-mail addresses “[Base] All” and “[Wing] All” are not authorized for general use. Use of these two e-mail groups for transmission of official information is restricted to vice, group, deputy group and squadron commanders…

The base network will be used to disseminate information to military and civilian personnel assigned and/or attached to [this] AFB for temporary announcements, notices, and instructions in accordance with the guidance outlined in this instruction.

If Kirtland had a similar policy, the Deputy Group Commander would have been explicitly authorized to use the email list.  If Kirtland had a more restrictive policy, he may not have been permitted to do so.

The other question is Kirtland’s policies on “other staff activities.”  As the Air Force made a point of saying before:

Chaplain programs will receive communications support as would comparable staff activities.

As noted previously, the Bible study was advertised as a Chaplain program.  Thus, if the 58 SOW was permitting mass email distributions for other comparable activities, then the Deputy Group Commander’s emails were not only permissible, they were protected.  On the other hand, if the mass email distributions were limited to certain departments or heads, then the Deputy Group Commander’s email may not have been allowed under that guidance.

The Military’s Response

The three complaints in the message to the MRFF do not appear to be valid or actionable.  At worst, the MRFF may have a case of improper email use (irrespective of “religious content”).  How did the Air Force respond?  As released by Michael Weinstein’s MRFF:

From: “See, Stephen E LtCol USAF AFMC AFNWC/JA”
Date: Thu, 7 Apr 2011
Subject: 58 SOW Email Concern

Mr. Weinstein,

…The 58 SOW is committed to protecting the religious freedom of its service members. Likewise, the wing is committed to protecting its personnel from coercion to engage or not to engage in religious activities and the appearance that any religion or absence of religion is endorsed or favored.

Because of these concerns, we agree that [the] email was inappropriate. As you know, less than 24 hours from receipt of your complaint, [the Deputy Group Commander] sent a follow-up email to the entire 58 SOW apologizing to those offended, informing the wing it was not his intent to pressure anyone to attend the Bible study, reiterating that attendance was voluntary, and assuring the wing that future invitations would not be sent from him, but from the Chapel. Additionally, later that same day, the Commander of the 58 SOW sent his own email reiterating that “the 58 SOW does not endorse or favor any religious faith or absence of faith.” He further stated that participation in religious activities is an individual choice and that “no authority within this wing has the right to use command influence to shape an individual’s religious choices.”

We believe these actions are adequate to correct any misperceptions that may have been created by [the] email. The 58 SOW Commander has directed that the Bible study not be referred to as a “58 SOW” Bible study and that future invitations come only through the Chaplain’s office. Additionally, the 58 SOW Commander has reviewed [the commander’s] conduct related to this situation and has appropriately dealt with the situation. The Commander’s action is protected by the Privacy Act hence we cannot disclose any details. In light of the above, we consider this matter to be closed…

Very Respectfully,

Stephen Edward See
AFNWC Deputy SJA // 377 ABW SJA
Kirtland Air Force Base, NM

To summarize, the base lawyer said “we agree” the email was inappropriate, an “apology” was sent out, and future emails will come from the chapel.

This sets the stage for a final caveat: commander discretion, or commander prerogative.  The unit commander has wide latitude to operate his unit as he sees fit, within certain bounds, even if there are no governing regulations.  For example, when the JAG said this:

The 58 SOW Commander has directed that the Bible study not be referred to as a “58 SOW” Bible study and that future invitations come only through the Chaplain’s office.

it indicated a perfectly permissible command decision, even if there are no regulations on email distribution or related matters.  It is worth noting, however, there is no indication this guidance was previously given.  The issue is somewhat more complex, too, should the military restrict specific conduct because of its religious content.

It is regrettable the official response declared the Commander’s email “inappropriate.”  The military had the prerogative to respond to the complaint and take action without airing internal criticism — particularly when that very criticism potentially raises an issue of religious freedom and discrimination.  For what its worth, the lawyer’s letter describes a very short timeline; it is possible there were significant debates between the Chaplains, JAG, and commanders during that time over the correct response.  Were this to occur again or in a different location, it might result in a different response.  (As noted before, military officers can give incorrect advice upon which commanders take action.)

It is also possible there was no debate; the officers may have simply had a conversation about perceptions, and the Deputy Group Commander voluntarily — and sincerely — sent out the apology email.  The fact that conduct changed after a complaint does not mean the conduct was wrong, nor does it mean anyone was punished, despite the public implications in the email above.

The Outcome

So what’s the end result of this current “scandal?”  Believe it or not, it’s far more benign than it might seem after reading the Air Force’s response.  In fact, the leadership at Kirtland seems to have largely come to the same conclusions noted here.

The Bible study can still continue (Wednesdays from 1200 – 1300, if you’re at Kirtland).  It will still be advertised, and the same commander will likely still lead it.

So what changed?

The MRFF has successfully changed the sender of the email (that their “client” will still get) from a commander to a Chaplain.  That’s it.  (It would seem the MRFF has now become a military IT monitor — though if they take on that mantle, it might be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.)  What of all the hand-wringing over Airmen who might attend to gain face time with the commander, or the fact a religious event isn’t being led by a Chaplain?  Apparently those weren’t important.  The MRFF seems to be satiated with the change to the “From” line in the email.  For now.

Of course, the MRFF has previously had “clients” complain about Chaplains sending out mass emails, so it remains to be seen if this goes further.  For its part, the Air Force said they consider the matter closed.

While much time was spent here on the specifics of this complaint, the original question remains:  Can an officer advertise a Bible study?

In short, yes.

As with everything in the military, you should know the rules before you do so.  Every service and every unit has varying rules on advertising, announcing, and distributing information.  Find out what those rules are and follow them.  The rules won’t necessarily avoid incorrect perceptions, as this case showed, but it is the best-faith effort you can make in exercising your freedoms within the military environment.

In general, personal emails to mass audiences aren’t well received regardless of the topic.  At many military installations there is some form of “public announcement” system, whether through a conglomerated basewide email message, electronic bulletin board, or some other format.  If you lead a Bible study under the Chaplaincy program — and it is always beneficial if your study is coordinated with the Chaplains — your study is an “official” activity.  In coordination with your Chaplain, you should have the same access to public announcements as other official functions.  That forum, if it exists, is generally one of the better means to advertise a study.

Despite all of that, you may still get pushback; people can be wrong.  Someone may try to say you aren’t allowed the same freedoms as others because of religious content — like a unit that allows mass emails about an upcoming barbecue but not an upcoming Bible study.  Though they might have the best intentions, those people would be wrong.

If that is the case, talk to your leadership and your Chaplains to help correct the situation.  If the problem remains — or if you see coercion by an outside organization — there are other organizations who can provide a counter to those external critics, as well as help explain the concepts of military religious freedom to those who sometimes feel obligated to answer the critics rather than defend the virtue of freedom.

Need help?  All you have to do is ask.


  • JD,

    I’ll have to split from you slightly here. The CC sending an email is allowed and appropriate. The problem is the content: there is a difference between announcing and advertising the Bible study. The CC here advertised more than announced. Inappropriate.

    Also inappropriate is the NCO’s complaint. You can’t say the system is broken if people don’t use the system. Go to the JAG first, and if that doesn’t work, then we’ll talk. Inappropriate.

    Last, AF response to MRFF. It looks like a severe overcorrection, but well within order.

  • @Dealer
    Interesting discriminator. Upon what guidance are you relying to delineate between allowable “announcing” and impermissible “advertising?” In other words, to what guidance can others refer to understand what permissible content their messages may have?

    The complaint does say “some of us were told to just delete the emails,” which seems to imply “they” complained to someone, though who and how official that was remains anyone’s guess.

  • JD,

    My discriminator is only my memory of the general feel of the religious freedom CBT. I’d pull up the actual CBT, but I’m going on leave and rather focus on that.

    The cue for my judgment on the NCO is his own statement: “Being in fear of possible retribution for speaking out through the channels normally available, I decided to contact MRFF.” I always thought that you could contact the JAG anonymously, if needed.

  • @Dealer
    Your comment is valid, though perhaps a better semantic contrast would be “announce” versus “invite.”

    The lawyer’s message above (and the CBT you reference) appear to rely on “appearance” and “perception” (of endorsing a religion, etc), which are unfortunately subjective terms. (There is no military regulation defining when something becomes a “reasonable perception,” for example.)

    In this case, it appears the military determined there existed inappropriate “appearance, perception, etc,” in the email, which it rectified primarily by making the Chaplain the sender (as is their prerogative).

    This may have been obscured in the “what ifs” above, but the last few paragraphs made the main point:

    Despite the outward “appearance” of this case, a military officer can “advertise” a religious fellowship over official channels. You just need to find out what the rules are governing such communications in your service/at your base, and then follow them. Unfortunately, issues of perceptions/ appearances can be subjective, which is why its good to work closely with the Chaplains.

    Because much of this is based on the Religious Freedom CBT, a request is in now to determine whether or not it is publicly releasable. If it is, it will be posted here as soon as reasonably possible.

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