Weinstein Targets Travis AFB Nativity, Menorah
[Update: In a brilliant move, Travis AFB is inviting the local press to come see the “holiday” display today. Officials also indicated the issue was being elevated, since, as noted below, Travis is far from the only military facility to have religious displays during Hanukkah and Christmas.]
Michael Weinstein, the single paid officer of his personally-founded charitable “foundation,” has threatened Travis Air Force Base with legal action.
Because they put up a nativity scene and a Menorah.
In case you hadn’t noticed, it is approaching Christmas and Hanukkah. It is traditional during this time of year for military bases around the world to light Christmas trees, have visits from Santa (he arrives by plane), erect nativities and Menorahs, and sponsor what is often known as a “holiday card lane.” This confluence of events is an acknowledgement of the celebrations in which a vast majority of military members — and American citizens — partake.
The issue of “holiday” trees has already been discussed. Though the legal letter fails to mention it, the nativity and Menorah at issue are part of the Holiday Card Lane at Travis AFB. Traditionally, Air Force bases allow units, individuals, and organizations to create “holiday cards,” often out of 4×8 sheets of plywood. There may or may not be other criteria in place, like whether or not the cards can have lights or need to be fastened down to the ground. These cards are lined up along an avenue of the base. Sometimes, they are judged in contests or inaugurated simultaneously with the tree-lighting (as were the ones at Travis).
The only thing Weinstein takes issue with, however, is the nativity and Menorah. Why? The letter from Jones Day, written by attorney Katherine Ritchey, interestingly never mentions Weinstein by name. It says
I understand that you recently erected, on public grounds, a large religious display featuring a Nativity scene and a Menorah, both of which are clearly accessible to a main road in the town of Fairfield, California.
This conspicuous display of ritual objects is a clear endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and must either be removed from the premises or moved to a more appropriate location on the Air Force Base to ensure compliance with the United States Constitution.
While Weinstein likes to put “prestigious” in front “Jones Day,” next time he might want to spend a little more money on a non-“prestigious” lawyer who is actually going to look at what she’s writing about. To wit:
The display contains…a large Nativity scene featuring figures of the baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the wise men of Nazareth…
Ignoring the reference to Nazareth, which has nothing to do with the Christmas story, it seems Ms. Ritchey didn’t even look at the pictures her client provided. The pictures of Travis AFB, reprinted on FoxNews, clearly show seven figurines: Joseph, Mary, Jesus, two lambs/sheep, a donkey, and cow. So unless Ritchey is trying to say the “wise men” walked on all fours and said “baa,” its pretty clear she’s complaining out of reflex, or she’s complaining about something other than the Travis AFB nativity. It’s almost as if she had a form letter for complaining about nativities and didn’t pause long enough to see this one was different.
Travis AFB’s display includes, to our knowledge, only one secular object, a single “Happy Holidays” sign containing an image of Santa Claus.
Again, looking at the photos her client provided, there are clearly at least 13 additional displays. Comments on other websites from Travis AFB personnel indicate there may be as many as 25 total displays along the lane.
It seems Jones Day finally read the internet comments and sent another letter to Travis AFB wing commander Col Dwight C. Sones a few days later. One problem, though: After such a thorough (though erroneous) criticism, how could they maintain their claim without losing face? Apparently, this way:
We erroneously stated that there are Wise Men in the Nativity Scene installation. We have also learned that there may be other displays on the base.
We do not believe that either of these two additional pieces of information changes our analysis that using the Nativity Scene and Menorah, or other religious symbols, as the prominent element of the display on the main thoroughfare violates the First Amendment.
How convenient. If that’s the case, why use that logic to begin with? Not content to surrender quite yet, they ask the Air Force to help them build their case…against the Air Force:
We would, however, appreciate if you would provide us with further information regarding all installations, including their size, content, and proximity to the Nativity scene and Menorah.
The lawyer’s original letter demanded the removal of the nativity and Menorah:
we request that the Travis AFB immediately either remove the religious display from its premises, or move it to a more appropriate location on the base.
Todd Starnes, saying “Anti-Nativity Group Declares War on Travis AFB,” described Weinstein’s MRFF as an “organization dedicated to cleansing the military of religious symbols.” Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council called Weinstein’s legal threat “yet another flyby-attack on Christianity.”
“No one is forced to stand in front of the Nativity, and salute it, but people in this country should have the right to celebrate Christmas and what it means,” Perkins told Fox News & Commentary.
Unfortunately, the Air Force may have brought some of this on itself. Michael Weinstein likes to throw mud against the wall and see what sticks. A few years ago, for example, an IG investigation ignored his accusations of religious favoritism but did chastise officers for “endorsement of a non-Federal entity.” As a result, that was the line of attack Weinstein and his group used for some time thereafter. When Weinstein finds a weakness, he continues to pick, poke, and prod it at every opportunity. When the military grimaces, he refines his attack based on their reaction. Even if the action wasn’t favorable to him, it gives him information on how to attack the next time.
Thus, when the US Air Force Academy gave the public the inaccurate impression that “faith based” activities were restricted to the chaplaincy (in re: Operation Christmas Child), it gave Weinstein his latest blood in the water: He’ll demand displays of faith be restricted to chaplains or the chapel grounds, a restriction for which there is no Constitutional or legal basis.
In truth, this isn’t the first controversy over a “holiday card lane,” but because the situation was previously reversed, it didn’t make the news:
At another Air Force base, the “holiday card lane” was adjacent to the chapel grounds, but was conspicuously missing the nativity and Menorah. When wondering troops asked why, they were told the chapel displays were “too religious” and weren’t erected over concerns that someone would complain. Only after a few assertive chaplains and troops pointed out the asinine logic — as well as questionable legality — of such a restriction were the displays allowed to be put up.
In the end, does Weinstein’s complaint matter?
Contrary to Ritchey’s poorly researched legal threat, a “reasonable person” doesn’t drive by a nativity and think the Air Force is endorsing Christianity, or endorsing Judaism by the Menorah next to it. (Some probably realize that Judaism and the nativity are mutually exclusive, though that obviously escapes the critics.) A “reasonable person” drives past those displays and thinks it must be the season of Christmas/Hanukkah.
Some bases have large “holiday card lanes.” Some have none. Some have nativities and Menorahs on chapel grounds, some at other locations on the base.
Banning religious displays, one option the lawyer provides, is patently impermissible. Otherwise, a military base can certainly choose to have its religious displays on the chapel grounds (though Weinstein would probably then complain the chapels were hostile toward the other faiths who might use them). Creating a policy restricting the displays to chapel grounds, however, is problematic, because it is a restriction based purely on religious content — something Weinstein, a critic of the Constitutional protection of religious freedom, likely knows may be illegal.
The display of a nativity and Menorah on the Air Force Base is not unConstitutional. It is absolutely a religious display, and unless it inhibits the mission, the Air Force should follow DoD policy and accommodate the display of both the nativity and Menorah.
To target religious displays for restriction based on their religious content would be an affront to the Constitution and may create the perception of an environment hostile to faith in the military, degrading the religious liberty of American troops.
Travis AFB indicated the letter was undergoing legal review. This is the perfect opportunity for the JAGs to publicly show Weinstein the door.
Still, think this will end anytime soon? Not likely. In fact, maybe next year military atheists will join their civilian counterparts and demand the ability to denigrate Christianity in displays near the nativity and Menorah.