Air Force Chief Scrubs Unit of Religious Resources
A high ranking member of the Air Force tears down posters at his base because he disagrees with their religious viewpoint. Think that’s actionable?
Michael Weinstein’s research assistant, Chris Rodda, once railed against a group of military Christian officers who had the gall to publicly state their Christian beliefs to an audience of fellow believers. Weinstein himself called for a General officer to be court-martialed for telling his subordinates about the ‘life rules’ he lived by — which included references to God. In these and other cases Weinstein and his acolytes have decried as illegal and unconstitutional the words of military members expressing portions of their religious faith. To be clear, there were no actions involved — only words consistent with the protected exercise of religious liberty.
It seems for a couple of military atheists, though, there’s certainly some action — and thus far, Weinstein has yet to defend “religious freedom” from their conduct:
An enlisted Airman recently introduced himself by his name and rank to a group of like-minded military atheists:
I’m a recently promoted CMSgt, and I’ve just PCS’ed to a new squadron as the superintendent. I’ve spent the last couple of days chatting with everyone from the most junior ranking to my Lieutenant Colonel boss…
That seems benign enough, though it is a bit odd that a Chief Master Sergeant feels the need to take to the internet to discuss his daily official duties. For those unaware, a Chief Master Sergeant is an E-9 — the highest enlisted pay grade in the US military. Current US law limits the number of Air Force Chief Master Sergeants to 1.25% of the active enlisted force. In other words, this Chief can be promoted no higher, and he outranks nearly 99% of the enlisted Air Force. Being a Chief is “kind of a big deal,” and it seems he wants people to know that about him.
There is no higher enlisted pay grade than E-9.
People are free to talk about work on the internet, of course, even if they’re E-9s with more than 20 years in. That’s fair. Odd, but fair.
What he says next, though, belies his decades of military service:
In wandering around the squadron, I’ve discovered posters for MWR-sponsored, overtly Christian evangelical events, invited guests, and sectarian retreats. In accordance with regulations (as I understand them), I’ve pulled those posters off of the unit boards. I left the contact information for the squadron, group, and wing chaplains.
Just to be clear, the newly-arrived senior enlisted member of a military unit went through the squadron and ripped down any poster about something religious — including ones sponsored by Air Force MWR, which means they were sanctioned Air Force events. This Chief — the highest ranking enlisted member of his unit — openly admitted he targeted for removal only those items referencing religion.
The comments in reply were largely high-fiving between like-minded atheists — some of whom were lower ranking Air Force enlisted troops:
As an AF E-6, I appreciate your commitment to stomp out sectarianism. Thank you Chief!
What they don’t seem to realize is the Chief is actually wrong. As a sole voice in the conversation tried to point out:
As long as the posters are part of an open forum where anyone could post similar events for other religions or specifically non-religious events, then they are generally okay (local regulations may vary)…
The First Amendment does forbid the government from favoring for one religious preference over another, but it also guarantees individuals the right to practice and express their religions…
The rebuttal is generally correct. The Air Force cannot promote religion, but it also cannot restrict something merely because of religion. If a bulletin board allows generic announcements of many stripes, religious ones cannot be banned. If the unit has an announcement board for base or unit activities, then base or unit activities associated with religion are also permissible. By no stretch is it “sectarianism” to hang a poster announcing a religious retreat; nor is it appropriate for members of the military to take it upon themselves to “stomp out” such activity.
In fact, it is (generally) wrong — and a violation of Air Force instructions and policy — to censor material or restrict conduct solely because it references religious content.
Ironically, participants in the discussion attempted to cite relatively new Air Force Instruction 1-1 to support the Chief’s conduct. They apparently failed to realize this Chief may actually be violating AFI 1-1, which states
[Leaders] must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order, and discipline.
Some might argue this Chief is using his official position as a Chief to promote his version of personal religious beliefs. His actions were based upon his personal religious beliefs, and they were not supported by Air Force Instructions. His statements and conduct toward the religious postings, which he proudly and publicly stated and associated with his name and rank, could “cause members to doubt” his ability to treat them impartially.
The Chief Master Sergeant’s single saving grace is his qualifier he acted “in accordance with regulations (as I understand them).” It is interesting that he chose to make that caveat — as if he was allowing he could be wrong — yet still chose to unilaterally take action, rather than consult with military leaders, superiors, or others trained to “understand” regulations correctly with regard to religion — like chaplains or Military Equal Opportunity specialists.
It is now likely clear to the casual observer that the Chief ‘understood them’ incorrectly, since he treated his Airman or groups differently merely because of religious belief. For those who require more specificity, Air Force Instruction 36-2706 clearly prohibits discrimination — which it defines as
Any unlawfully [sic] action that denies equal opportunity to persons or groups based on their race, color, sex, national origin, or religion.
Just to be clear, while there may be legitimate discussions about some posters or advertisements in a military duty area, there is almost no conceivable circumstance under which Air Force regulations would prohibit the display of a poster advertising an Air Force MWR event — yet the Chief said he pulled down an MWR poster just because it said something about religion. In the same vein, the Chief’s conduct would be questionable regardless of the religious viewpoint of either the posters or the Chief. It is the environment of supporting religious liberty and tolerance — something the military values — that matters.
The Chief doesn’t need to be court-martialed, slapped with an Article 15, or strung up from the yard arm. Because of the position and authority he wields, though, it would benefit him and his unit if he could be corrected — so he can act appropriately in the future. Members of his unit may not even know enough to complain — unless they rehang the posters or otherwise find out he took them down, and they’re willing to ‘take on the Chief.’ It’s obvious no one on The Internet is going to correct him; in fact, younger Airmen are self-identifying and clearly learning the wrong lesson. (Can you imagine what they’d have thought if a “religious” Chief tore down atheist posters because of the regulations, as he “understands them?”)
It’s also evident the Chief won’t be self-correcting; he indicated elsewhere that he knew precisely how to contact the chaplains and what the IG and MEO are for — and he used them, apparently along with his rank, to get a Christian radio station turned off at the Commissary:
I…called that commissary, and insisted on talking to a supervisor. I explained that on an AF base, a Christian radio station broadcast at a DECA or AAFES facility was inappropriate, and I would be contacting the Wing MEO and IG to remedy the situation if the supervisor couldn’t correct the problem immediately…A few minutes later they’d changed the station…
Whether a Commissary should be piping in Christian radio isn’t the point. What’s clear is the Chief’s long-running belief that he is enforcing Air Force policy when he threatens base facilities or unilaterally tears down posters — when, in fact, he’s doing little more than promoting (or attempting to codify) his personal religious beliefs — with the imprimatur of his rank to add gravitas to the threat. His conduct was based on his beliefs, not actual violations of Air Force policy. His complaints are based in ideology, not military regulations.
It seems that shortly after this went public, Weinstein’s MRFF did take notice. Of course, they noticed that it was written here — because their own members were already a part of the original conversation. They talked to the Chief, but were likely looking for a way to attack here, not actually “defend religious freedom.”
Once the Chief realized his comments were known outside his clique, the Chief hid them — though he has neither publicly retracted nor apologized for them. In contrast with his demands that Christians who speak of their faith be court-martialed, the self-declared defender of religious freedom in the US military — Michael Weinstein’s MRFF — has publicly said nothing about the behavior in this incident, though it is well aware. After all, one of the few remaining public pieces of information is that the Chief is a member of the MRFF Facebook group. For its part, the Air Force didn’t respond to a request.
It seems that since Weinstein is happy to get a pseudo-religious 9/11 poster pulled down in 56-minutes, he has no problem with an E-9 doing the same thing, seemingly on his behalf, so long as it’s evangelical Christianity that’s being targeted.
Not unlike recent incidents involving “anti-Christian” content in official Air Force briefings and emails, the objective of highlighting this incident isn’t to prove institutional discrimination against Christians by the military. Instead, the greater point is that, contrary to Michael Weinstein’s wailing and moaning, there are many people — and many people of rank and position — who share his ideology within the US military, and they use their positions within the military to advance his cause (without repercussion, apparently).
It isn’t ironic that Weinstein’s own acolytes like this Chief are guilty of precisely what he says he is fighting: The imposition of personal religious beliefs on subordinates. Rather, it is expected. After all, for years Weinstein has been attempting to influence the highest levels of the military to impose his view of religious liberty on the US military — where his view is that only the right kind of religions are deserving of liberty, and the wrong kind are “national security threats.” (The person who gets to decide which beliefs are “right” or “wrong,” of course, is Michael Weinstein.) For those years, Weinstein has succeeded largely because his critics who defended religious liberty have largely lacked a public voice.
It seems organizations — and US Congressmen — are now rising that may be able to fill that need. The loudest voice in the room is often assumed to be the correct one, and the US military has been accused taking unnecessary action to appease critics before. Now it seems there may be “critics” on the opposing side — something Weinstein hasn’t had to deal with before.
While multiple critics will make the military no less comfortable, it may provide “balance” to how the military reacts to those critics.