USAFA SPIRE Leaders Protect Religious Freedom under New Regulation

The US Air Force Academy recently met with all of its SPIRE volunteers — faith representatives who help USAFA with its spiritual support through the Special Program in Religious Education program [emphasis added]:

About 60 volunteers from Buddhist, Earth-Centered, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Latter Day Saints, Catholic and Protestant groups gathered to review leadership guidelines and sign a SPIRE Memorandum of Agreement before working with cadets.

“The volunteers are like tentacles of the chapel,” said Chaplain (Capt.) Amber Kiesel, SPIRE deputy director. “They help cadets become men and women with Air Force core values and allow them to exercise their first amendment right. They mentor cadets, hold religious education nights, prayer meditation nights, worship services and more.”

The meeting was mandatory for these para-church groups to fulfill a recent change to Air Force regulations. Late last year, AFI 52-101 was quietly changed to specifically protect these groups as extensions of the chapel, though they were required to sign a Memorandum of Agreement to participate: 

3.9. Lay Organizations. Chaplains may support faith group-specific lay organizations with the concurrence of the wing/installation chaplain (or equivalent). Lay organizations have a primarily religious focus but are not Chaplain Corps programs. Their activities are consistent with the Chaplain Corps mission of providing spiritual care and opportunities for the free exercise of religion

3.9.1. Lay Organization Oversight. The wing chaplain has oversight of all religious activities at a wing/installation. Lay organizations are required to sign a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) annually with the wing chaplain (or equivalent).

This change was implemented to formalize the decades-long relationships chapels maintained with para-church groups — relationships that had become endangered due to criticisms by groups attacking religious liberty in the US military.

One of those critics of religious liberty in the military is Michael “Mikey” Weinstein’s MRFF. When he sees the AFI, he may have an aneurysm: It specifically protects — by name — some of the very para-church groups Weinstein has attacked for years, at times even accusing them of illegal activity [emphasis added]:

Their activities are consistent with the Chaplain Corps mission of providing…opportunities for the free exercise of religion (e.g., Officers’ Christian Fellowship (OCF), Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS), The Navigators, The Knights of Columbus, Campus Crusade for Christ and Worldwide Marriage Encounter).

To be clear, this was an Air Force wide regulation — revised for the first time last December after nearly eight years — validating the purposes of these para-church groups, in direct contravention of Mikey Weinstein’s vitriolic tirades.

These AFI updates, taken together with the upcoming change to AFI 1-1, have been steadily, if slowly, increasing the protection of religious liberty in the Air Force.