Shaw AFB Restores Nativity at Base Chapel

Does it pass the Air Force common sense test that a Nativity is officially removed because no one else wants to put up another display alongside it?

In an event that drew national attention — including from the US Congress — Shaw Air Force Base erected a plastic figurine Nativity in front of the base’s Palmetto Chapel. As predicted, it was placed in its traditional location from years past: 

Officials have decided the best place for a Nativity scene is next to the installation’s chapel.

Air Force spokesman 1st Lt. Earon Brown said a military chaplain blessed the scene after volunteers put it on the chapel grounds this week where it has been in previous years.

Shaw Air Force Base made it clear the Nativity had been removed after exactly zero complaints from members of the Air Force.  The sole complaint came from the COO of a “religious freedom” “charity,” Michael “Mikey” Weinstein.

While some were “pleased” the Nativity was “restored,” the move did little to placate criticisms of the original decision to remove the Nativity.  Shaw AFB explained it this way one time:

Lt. Keavy Rake said the Pentagon warned that items that are almost exclusively religious in nature, like a Nativity scene, “could appear to endorse religion” if they are displayed alone and away from chapel grounds.

An announcement on the Shaw AFB Chapel Facebook page gave a slightly different take [emphasis added]:

All faith-based and secular groups were offered an opportunity to put up holiday displays; however, only one group elected to do so resulting in the nativity scene being the sole display. Based on only one faith group being represented, 20th Fighter Wing officials determined the appropriate course of action was to celebrate the holiday season uniformly and elected to remove the nativity scene from Memorial Lake.

Finally, a third release from Shaw AFB Public Affairs appeared to give yet another version to the story — which had originally been that HQ legal had passed word through the JAG that the Nativity should come down [emphasis added]:

Team Shaw, families, friends and concerned supporters; The Nativity Scene was not removed from base; it was moved from Memorial Lake and re-erected at the Palmetto Chapel today at noon. The recommendation of the USAF Chief of Chaplains was that Nativity Scene be displayed on Chapel grounds rather than the lake, 20th Fighter Wing officials agreed. Although no other faith-based or secular groups opted to place a display at Memorial Lake, it was determined- both by the USAF Chief of Chaplains, and the 20th Fighter Wing, that the Chapel grounds would be more suitable for the sole religious display…Thank you all for your patience, support and understanding.

In other words, even if a display is open to everyone, it has a minimum requirement of at least two disparate points of view — otherwise, no one can participate. No public statement has yet explained where such a policy exists in the Constitution, law, or Air Force regulations.  Were it true, secularist critics would have a new weapon in their campaign against public expressions of religious holidays: do nothing. If they do nothing, then Christians can’t either.

The Shaw statement added one more detail as yet unannounced:

The guidance was not limited to Shaw AFB, but passed to all USAF installations across the globe.

As before, the announcement of “guidance” is confusing — since even the USAF Chief of Chaplains cannot issue orders.  So while they may have “suggested” something Air Force wide, it remains an open command decision at “installations across the globe” — just as it was before.

The critic who began the “controversy,” Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, is presumably fine with the Nativity being at the chapel.  For some reason, he found it acceptable on one lawn, but believed it was “unconstitutional” a half mile down the road next to the lake.  Not all of Weinstein’s acolytes got the message.  Frequent and vocal MRFF supporter Steve Font declared it would have been fine if only all faiths had just been invited to participate:

It was open to all.  Steve Font: “whatever.”  Oops.

A local report summarized it this way [emphasis added]:

On Thursday, a public affairs officer told WIS the nativity scene was moved to the front of the base chapel in accordance with Air Force policy.

Despite the public turn of events, no reasonable interpretation of the US Constitution requires the Air Force to pull down a previously allowed Nativity simply because no one else chose to join the forum. (The decision to take action based solely on the Christian content of the display inspired the AFA’s Tony Perkins to call it a “war on the freedom of religious expression.”)

20th Fighter Wing Chaplain (LtCol) Richard Fitzgerald sprinkles holy water over the Nativity scene at Shaw Air Force Base S.C. (Senior Airman Ashley L. Gardner / Air Force)

Despite Weinstein’s accusations, there’s nothing about the chapel grounds that makes the display any more or less of a “direct” constitutional “violation.”  No Federal or state law has any restriction on the events. And, contrary to the Public Affairs statement, no public Air Force policy requires a Nativity to be in a particular location nor requires it to be accompanied by the displays of other religions (or anti-religions).

The chain of command is free, of course, to make any command decision they choose, and then defend it as such. But that’s not how Shaw AFB has framed it. They have essentially said the decision was out of their hands, either because Air Force policy or JAG advice (or the Chief of Chaplains) required them to act because only Christians took the opportunity provided to all.

Weinstein’s attacks on Christians in the military are intended, in part, to gain publicity for himself — which increases his chances of fundraising, one of his primary goals. His attacks have had unintended consequences, though, because he’s actually caused the promotion of Christianity in the military. A few months ago, thousands of people read an article by an obscure military chaplain in Alaska (no offense, Chaplain Reyes). Now, the entire nation watched Shaw AFB put up plastic figurines celebrating Christ’s birth — a benign, religious event that occurs in hundreds of locations around the military.

Public comments seem to indicate Weinstein may be burning his last chits with the Air Force. Congressmen were demanding answers from Shaw Air Force Base, and even they didn’t rate a Weinstein-level 2 hour response. Columnist Todd Starnes said

I’m still troubled by the amount of power Mikey Weinstein wields at the Pentagon. It took two hours and 15 minutes for the Pentagon to respond to his query. It took them six days to respond to the media.

The Pentagon may privately assure religious liberty groups that Weinstein is nothing more than a gadfly. But the facts prove otherwise. When Mikey Weinstein speaks, the Pentagon obeys.

Retired Chaplain (Col) Ron Crews said

This is yet another example of the Air Force yielding to a phone call from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

The apparent growing concern is less that the Air Force moved a Nativity — and more that it granted Weinstein status as some kind of special advisor (status not granted to Congressmen, the media, or the “thousands” of others who called Shaw AFB in protest).

How many more times can the Air Force immediately react to a demand by Michael Weinstein — and then spend days or weeks either reversing itself or explaining itself both to Congress and the American people? To this point, Weinstein has relied on two things: Apparent influence at Air Force headquarters, and people at the unit level being unaware of his vitriolic and checkered history.

Now, Weinstein is gaining notoriety (and not in a good way), even among those who have never heard of him.  (A Facebook page to restore the Nativity to its original location gained more than 5,000 likes in a single day.  Former acolyte of Army atheist Justin Griffith, Chris Herr, has taken to commenting on almost every post there.)  Also, General Welsh has essentially declared an era of respect and common sense in the Air Force — two things antithetical to Weinstein’s crusade against the smallest association of Christian faith and the US military.

Are Weinstein’s days of acting as a “consultant” to the Air Force on its own policies coming to an end?

Raw footage of the ceremony replacing the Nativity at Shaw AFB:

Image via US Senator Lindsey Graham. Credit: Senior Airman Ashley L. Gardner / Air Force.

More at The Blaze, and the Washington Times. The local paper published a spate of letters to the editor.