A few news sites reported last week on the US Air Force Academy’s participation in — and then reconsideration of its participation in — Operation Christmas Child, in which shoeboxes with basic sundries and gifts are given to needy children around the world by Samaritan’s Purse.
The situation is fairly complex, as evidenced by the fact a few news organizations had to edit and reissue their news articles to correct misunderstandings about what really occurred.
Undisputed public statements indicate cadets at the US Air Force Academy came up with the idea to participate in Operation Christmas Child. They made an announcement in Mitchell Hall (the wing dining facility, with all cadets present) and subsequently sent out a wing-wide email explaining who to contact to participate.
A cadet who “didn’t think much about it at first” later forwarded the email to Michael Weinstein calling it part of the “religious problem” proving the US military “support[s] one religion, which is of course Christianity.” (Weinstein published the email, complete with the names and personal information of the cadets involved, though he redacted his supporter’s information.) Less than 24 hours later, Weinstein was in the local news
accus[ing] commanders of crossing the line by promoting “Operation Christmas Child” a program sponsored by an evangelical Christian group that sends toys and toiletries in shoe boxes to needy kids around the globe. The group includes a Christian message with the gifts.
Weinstein, the quoted article and several others cite the common misperception that OCC opens the boxes and places “Christian messages” inside, or that in order to receive a box a child must hear the gospel message. Neither is true. The OCC website explains when, if at all, such messages are given. The boxes themselves are delivered “unconditionally.”
Weinstein had apparently solicited his Academy insiders for offended observers and reported that 132 of his nearly 300 USAFA cadet, faculty, and staff supporters agreed with him.
Weinstein’s accusation was off base, as commanders had no part in the cadet-organized effort. The Air Force Academy initially backed the cadets, saying there was
nothing wrong with the school’s involvement. The cadets would provide toys and other items for the needy, and wouldn’t play a role in the religious message that is included with the gifts when they’re delivered, academy spokesman John Van Winkle said.
USAFA Commandant BrigGen Richard Clark ultimately called Weinstein when USAFA altered that support, saying
Under orders from Air Force headquarters, Clark said only the Chaplain Corps is responsible for advertising faith-based programs.
“The cadets had nothing but good intentions, but this was something that should have started with the Chaplains, not the Cadet Wing,” Clark said. “That doesn’t mean the cadets can’t volunteer for the Christmas toy drive, they can participate through the Cadet Chaplain Corps.”
The “change” in Academy position had some reporting that USAFA had “canceled” its participation in Operation Christmas Child. In fact, little has changed.
The Academy actually had to publish a release to explain that the program is still continuing, but cadets are coordinating through the cadet chaplain corps. Since those activities are, by Air Force policy, granted the same access as other staff activities, there should be no noticeable difference beyond the “chaplaincy” stamp on future messages.
Some have taken the position that this change is consistent with Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz’s September memo saying
I expect chaplains, not commanders, to notify Airmen of Chaplain Corps programs.
That perspective is understandable, and it may demonstrate the potential ambiguity introduced by the Chief’s message.
Put simply, the Operation Christmas Child effort by cadets was never a chaplain’s program. It seems everyone has simply assumed that it should have been because of the religious beliefs associated with the organization.
This is similar to an error the MRFF’s Chris Rodda has made in the past.
Pop quiz: Name a military policy that says when a program interacts with organizations which hold religious beliefs, the program must hand itself over to the chaplaincy.
The obvious answer: there is no such policy. The presence of religious belief does not require that military members abandon their normal operations and route an otherwise standard program through the chaplaincy. They can certainly choose to do so, but, until now, there has been no requirement they do so.
Did the military hand aid delivery to Japan over to the Chaplains because Samaritan’s Purse — the same organization running Operation Christmas Child — was providing the blankets and bottled water?
It was understood from the beginning this was a cadet organized service project. In fact, even the cadet who emailed Weinstein started his email describing it as a “wing community service project.” The cadet wing has organized service projects as varied as Ironman security in Hawaii to flood cleanup in South Dakota, and they actively seek cadet ideas to support.
To assert that community service projects can be coordinated by cadets unless they are somehow connected to a religious organization introduces an unusual level of official religious scrutiny by “government actors” — which Weinstein would argue is dangerous Constitutional ground, if he were intellectually consistent.
In effect, cadets can officially lead and participate in any community service project they choose, unless the project has some connection to a religious organization. At that point, they have to alter their normal procedures and accede to the chaplaincy, purely because of the beliefs of the organization with which they are dealing. Thus, cadets can support a food bank run by the city council with an email/announcement for volunteers, but they cannot do the same thing for a food bank run by the local Catholic Church.
This basically removes organizations with religious association from the cadet community service project group, or the Cadet Service Learning Program, which is an official part of USAFA’s Center for Character Development. The CSLP has previously been responsible for getting the Academy named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for USAFA’s community service efforts. Community service projects are the purview of this program, as noted by the USAFA admissions handbook:
Community service activities are accomplished through our Cadet Service Learning Program (CSL).
“Religious” groups may still be supported through the chaplaincy, but the relationship with the service group may be complicated or simply severed to avoid further criticism, earned or not. While the chaplaincy does some community service projects of its own, separating charities from the group designed for such cadet projects will likely reduce their support — unless, of course, cadets come up with an innovative way to re-integrate the newly separated religious and non-religious service projects. Cadets are an innovative bunch, so its entirely possible. It’s a shame they’re forced to jump such logistical and administrative hurdles purely to assuage a Weinstein affront.
The USAFA website even has a place such charitable organizations can request cadet volunteers. The site says
Requests for cadet volunteers must be from non-profit groups, churches, schools, or government agencies…A member of the Center for Character Development will contact the requesting POC before advertising the request to the cadets.
To be consistent with the latest interpretations of policy, the process must now be altered to remove religious organizations from that system or transfer them to the Chaplaincy. There isn’t currently a block for “Are you associated with a religion?”, but this “religious test” may be necessary to walk the fine line some seem to want.
While some may claim that’s not a big deal, think about how many projects which USAFA cadets — or other active duty officers — traditionally support with community service are in some way associated with religious charities. It’s standard fare to go support the local soup kitchen — but now the community service group can only support soup kitchens that aren’t associated with religious groups. Same goes for shelters, retirement homes, and missions cadets or any other member of the military may seek to support.
A quick web search of military supported groups in Colorado Springs yields frequent mentions of Marian House Soup Kitchen and the Springs Rescue Mission, both religious charities, as well as several other charities founded by or associated with the Catholic Church. Naturally, every service project’s organization must now be examined for any hint of religious association prior to gaining access to cadet or military support — many of whom “rely on” the “key role” of such support.
The Academy can organize its support for local charities in whatever manner it chooses, and it is walking an understandably gray line as it tries to treat religion “neutrally” while simultaneously treating it “differently.” To the point: Did the cadets in question make a mistake? Only insofar as taking action without getting it cleared through Michael Weinstein first. Until then, their conduct was consistent with what they (and many others) thought was Air Force and USAFA policy.
It does not seem that community service projects are “religious studies, faith sharing, and prayer meetings” inherently covered by the chaplain’s program, making it somewhat unusual to apply the Chief’s policy to these events at all. Contrary to Weinstein’s contortions, cadets asking other cadets to support a charitable cause that has a religious overtone is not prohibited. Within the military it does not establish a religion, and outside of the military it would have been transparent to the rest of the world.
Michael Weinstein did a victory dance over the Academy’s response, and most of the world seemed not to notice that besides having a chaplain involved, the Academy involvement with Operation Christmas Child hasn’t really changed. Notably, the cadet who originally wrote Weinstein had other complaints, including:
No one will think it is wrong we have wing wide Point Of Contacts to support a Christian mission.
The cadet needs to learn this “concern” is unfounded. Yes, you can have “wing wide POCs” for drives that support charities or other groups with religious missions. Weinstein should consider educating his supporters; but that might dull their hypersensitivity to Christianity. The cadet also needs to learn how to interact within the military system.
Who knows? Maybe this whole event will raise the awareness of Operation Christmas Child within the cadet wing to a level never before seen, and thanks to Weinstein, cadet participation will actually be greater than it may have been.