Air Force Lawyers on Religion and Blogging

As noted previously, the US Air Force’s “The Military Commander and the Law” broke some unique ground in 2010.  For example, it appeared to specifically address the coercion tactics of Michael Weinstein when it advised commanders on responding to activists cold-calling them and demanding they accede to their interpretation of religion in the military.

In another newly addressed area, the JAGs broached the “emerging area” of blogs.  Like the response to activists, this was only addressed in the “religious issues” section of the manual.  This was probably because, like the response to activists, “recent events” had only brought up the issue of blogs and the Air Force as they related to religion, and Michael Weinstein was probably responsible for that, as well.  The most relevant portion of the text:

– Military people have a right to use these sites for religious expression even if their identity as Air Force members is explicitly stated or can be easily determined

As with its attention to the Weinstein Method, this, too, appears to have been directed at a common accusation of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation: Representatives of the MRFF have implied, if not outright stated, that it is impermissible for members of the military to state their religious views on the internet (at least, if their religious views aren’t approved by the MRFF as the “right kind” of Christianity, for example).

In fact, last August MRFF research assistant Chris Rodda specifically held up for derision the “personal testimonies” of Christian military officers published on the website of Officers’ Christian Fellowship.  Said she:

U.S. miltary [sic] officers who are afraid of “violating the uniform code of military justice, command policy or regulations” by publicly espousing their religious views is a problem? To the rest of us that’s a solution!

That, from a purported advocate of “religious freedom” in the military, no less.

Importantly, the JAG’s text continues:

— Test as to whether the religious expression and/or military identity can/should be restricted must flow from something more than just status, e.g.,
— Express or inferential language suggesting Air Force endorsement of the expression and/or of religion
—- Could involve JER issues, e.g., indications of federal support of non-federal entities

In other words, “issues” cannot arise simply because a member of the military, even if he is known to be, expresses his religious beliefs.  However, if he should use language that suggests the Air Force endorses the expression, that may be cause for restriction — but that’s the same rule that applies regardless of content.

The section on religion and blogs ends with this sentence:

— Stronger, more prominent disclaimer than the minimums suggested/required by AFIs can head off potential problems for the poster and the Air Force, and better inform the public

That’s an interesting suggestion, though it hasn’t been codified in any Air Force Instruction (AFI).  Actually, to procedurally require a website of religious expression to have a different disclaimer than non-religious ones might engender the very conflict it is trying to address.  That’s probably why it remains but a suggestion.

As has been noted before, military lawyers provide guidance; they do not set policy, nor do they have line authority — though they advise those Air Force leaders who do.  As with any career field populated by humans, they are also not always right.

At the present, it seems the JAG advice to commanders is military members — even if they are identifiable as military members — may participate in the expression of their religious beliefs publicly on the internet.  To most people, this should “go without saying.”

To Michael Weinstein and Chris Rodda, this is the loss of an avenue of attack.