Air Force Responds to Outcry over Censored Commander’s Article

The Public Affairs officer at the Ohio National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing had a tough job — explaining the reasoning behind Col Craig “Bluto” Baker’s decision to censor an article by his medical group commander, Col Florencio Marquinez, because Michael “Mikey” Weinstein found it “odious.” Spokesman James Sims told FoxNews’ Todd Starnes this:

It’s very clear what you can and cannot say in an Air Force publication. Once it was brought to our attention and we compared it with the regulation, we found it was in violation of the regulation.

The article violated AFI 1-1, Sections 2.11 and 2.12.1, and the Revised Interim Guidelines Concerning Free Exercise of Religion in the Air Force guidance, and finally, ‘The Air Force Military Commander and the Law’ book.

That’s a fascinating — and error-filled — statement by the public affairs officer.

To the easy parts first:

First, the “Revised Interim Guidelines Concerning Free Exercise of Religion in the Air Force” do not exist. They were rescinded years ago and are no longer Air Force policy (though they still pop up in citations by those who think they are policy). In fact, they were rescinded because of their controversial nature and potential for misapplication. If this is the official reason the article was censored, it should probably be re-published, because the 180th FW is restricting speech based on non-existent guidance.

Second, the “Military Commander and the Law” is not a policy or regulation that can be “violated.” In fact, the publicly available publication (also here) says precisely that [emphasis added]:

As with any publication of secondary authority, this deskbook should not be used as the basis for action on specific cases.

The content of the Military Commander and the Law could be viewed as prejudicial to Col Marquinez’s column. For example, it vaguely says that a commander describing his priorities as “Jesus and family” could “generate[] the very problems commanders need to be attentive to avoiding.” Of course, the “problems” are the perceptions of lawyers, not violations of regulations, which is one reason the book itself says it is not a policy.

Besides, if Col Marquinez is found to have “violated” this JAG publication, then Col Baker may very well have done the same thing. Just a few pages later, it provides a repeat of the 2010 “Weinstein guidance”:

Outside advocates (including lawyers) for a particular resolution of a religious issue of which they have become aware might call you directly, advising you that the law “requires” you to adopt their position…

— Avoid sounding sympathetic or agreeable to their pronouncements

— Don’t take unilateral action (i.e., without first consulting JA and/or HC) to do what the caller is requesting/demanding!

— If a follow-up response is required, it might be preferable to disengage yourself and ask your Vice, exec, SJA, chaplain, or PA to do it

According to Weinstein, Col Baker wrote him and said [emphasis added]

“[W]e did in fact send the e-mail to all the 180th FW Airmen retracting the article from the MDG Commander. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for my Airmen and their families, especially those that were offended by the article…”

I intend to give further academics to all my CC’s to insure [sic] this mistake does not happen again.”

“Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns or if I can be of any help in the future. Thanks for what you do…”

Of course, this “sounds sympathetic or agreeable” to what Weinstein demanded, resulted in unilateral action, and came directly from the Commander — all things the JAG handbook “suggests” should not happen.  The reasoning is fairly simple: It can fuel Weinstein’s cause and, when Weinstein uses it selectively, it may provide a public affairs black eye to the Air Force as Col Baker’s letter could appear to endorse, legitimize, or otherwise support the MRFF.

Granted, some leeway needs to be given to Col Baker because Weinstein only published select excerpts from his response. Normally, Weinstein would publish the entire letter — indicating there may be some things in the correspondence Weinstein doesn’t want public.

Still, if violation of the “Military Commander and the Law” is the official reason the article was censored, the article probably needs to be re-published, because the JAG publication isn’t a policy that can be violated.

Finally, the reference to AFI 1-1 paragraph 2.12.1 makes no sense.  That paragraph of AFI 1-1 (available here, and at the Air Force site) says:

All Airmen are able to choose to practice their particular religion, or subscribe to no religious belief at all. You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.

Which part of that paragraph did Col Marquinez “violate?” The only proscription is “respect[] others whose viewpoints differ from your own” — something even a critic would have to admit Col Marquinez did.

The reference to AFI 1-1 paragraph 2.11 is more understandable, at least, since the topic of that section is “Government Neutrality Regarding Religion”:

Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion.

However, it is noteworthy that this has been the paragraph most cited by Weinstein in his attacks on Christians in the US Air Force — and the one targeted for removal in the as-yet-incomplete review of AFI 1-1 ordered by Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James in April.

In the end, despite its apparent length, the statement from the 180th FW spokesman boils down to one thing: The 180th FW Commander found Col Marquinez’s article contrary only to AFI 1-1 para 2.11 — the very same paragraph that is under review specifically because it has been having issues in implementation “in practice…at the Academy or on the flightline,” as the Secretary of the Air Force put it.

Can any reasonable person read Col Marquinez’s piece and believe he was trying to provide a government endorsement of religion, or force his religion on others, or otherwise convert others to his religious beliefs?

By contrast, when the Air Force allows many of its Airmen to publicly describe where they find their hope and motivation (or to describe their atheism), can the Air Force then deny that same opportunity to those who find their strength in religious beliefs?

Advocates for religious freedom say no. Retired Army Chaplain (Col) Ron Crews of The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty recently sent a letter (also here) to Col Craig Baker explaining that as the wing commander he, not Col Marquinez, actually ran afoul of the law:

Both federal law and Department of Defense policy require you to “accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs).” You failed to do so when [you] removed [his article] because he expressed his sincere religious beliefs.

Chaplain Crews also noted the second-order “perceptions” Col Baker may have created in attempting to avoid other “perceptions”:

Your actions led to a national spectacle and the false appearance that Colonel Marquinez did something wrong…

You have sent a chilling message to other members of the Air Force, that they need to keep their faith to themselves or else rise the judgment of the command.

An Air Force officer benignly stated the impact of faith on his life.  Does AFI 1-1 paragraph 2.11 really ban such expression?

Does the “chilling message” sent by Col Baker really reflect the environment of religious liberty in the US Air Force?

To date, the Air Force has said little, and Mikey Weinstein is trying to own the narrative.  His answers to both of those questions is yes.

Also at Townhall, the Christian Post, OneNewsNow, Christian Today, and the local news.