Updated with BrigGen Lee quote on Michael Weinstein.
Sixty-six members of Congress called on Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to investigate the US Air Force for an environment of “hostility towards religious freedom” — the fourth time in recent months they’ve made such an accusation.
The Congressional letter (PDF) essentially said that Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz’s September policy letter had created a “chilling effect” on religious freedom as Airmen attempted to comply with his guidance:
The decisions that have been made in reliance upon this policy go beyond what is required by the US Constitution. The First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion; however, the mere discussion of religion or reference to God certainly does not rise to that level.
The Congressmen said the Air Force had “capitulated” to organizations “that seek to remove all references to God and faith in our military,” with Congressman Akin saying
Unfortunately, it seems that some parts of the military are intent on prohibiting religious expression rather than protecting it. I hope that the Secretary of Defense will respond to this strong letter…by issuing clear protections for the religious liberty of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.
They cited the removal of a nuclear ethics course, the RCO patch controversy, the SOS course that said “chapel,” the Air Force Inns Bibles, and the 2011 Operation Christmas Child at the US Air Force Academy.
Individually, the incidents might not be viewed as “attacks” on religious freedom, but the consistent surrender to external critics of religious freedom creates the perception of an environment hostile to religious freedom in the Air Force:
The changes lend credence to the notion that the Air Force will remove any reference to God or faith that an outside organization brings to its attention…The combination of events mentioned above raises concerns that the Air Force is developing a culture that is hostile toward religion.
The observation is valid. Of all the accusations of religious misconduct, how many times has the Air Force defended the virtues of its Airmen or policies, rather than simply acceding to the critics? Even when it allowed a Nativity to stand at Travis AFB, it capitulated to the atheists’ demands to put up a display mocking religion next to the holiday displays. (By contrast, a US Army base simply ignored the same atheists.)
Interestingly, the Stars and Stripes called the letter a “reversal” of prior years, in which the Air Force had been accused of being too religious. Retired Chaplain (COL) Ron Crews of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty commended the Congressmen and pointed out line officers — not just chaplains — had complained of the increasingly hostile religious culture in the Air Force:
“Air Force officers, not chaplains, have contacted us about the environment in their workplace: not being allowed to place a Bible on a desk or invite a fellow officer to a Bible study in their home. This is not the environment for our military that our Founding Fathers envisioned.”
The FRC quoted Congressman Randy Forbes (R-Va) noting the fact the Air Force is worse than the other services:
“When viewed individually,” Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) said, “any of these actions is concerning. But taken together, they highlight an alarming pattern in the Air Force that we do not see in other branches of the military.”
Michael Weinstein, who is behind a few of the Air Force capitulations, is likely beside himself with both joy and apprehension. The good news, for him, is that he’s getting national attention, which will draw out the anti-religious freedom sycophants to donate to his
paycheck — er, “cause.” The bad news, for him, is that he’s getting the Air Force unwanted attention from Congress at a time when budgets are tight and tensions are high. This is the at least the fourth time in just a few months Congress has criticized the Air Force’s handling of religious freedom, and the number of Congressmen is growing. If the Air Force faces too much heat, Weinstein may lose his special access to Air Force leadership and its rapid surrenders may end — meaning he’ll lose the publicity (and funding) it brings.
Update: CARL’s Chaplain (BrigGen) Douglas Lee (USA-Ret.) laid much of the blame on Weinstein, calling him out as denigrating — not defending — religious liberty [emphasis original]:
“I think he has way more influence in the Air Force than is necessary,” Lee decides. “Certainly when he has threatened suit, the Air Force seems to have jumped very quickly. His organization claims to be concerned about religious liberty, but I personally interpret their actions as trying to denigrate religious liberty rather than celebrate it.”
For its part, the Air Force responded in reference only to individual Airmen, not the culture Congress was criticizing:
The Air Force said in a statement responding to the letter that airmen are “free to exercise their constitutional right to practice their religion — in a manner that is respectful of other individuals’ rights to follow their own belief systems.”
The spokesman likely misspoke, as the Air Force has not announced a policy that restricts free exercise to a “respectful” manner.
The “easy” road is for the Air Force to let the issue ride until General Schwartz — largely blamed for the hostility toward religious freedom in the Air Force — retires later this year and is replaced by the popular General Welsh. Then again, the “easy” road in virtually all the religious freedom incidents cited by Congress was to ignore the critics, yet they chose to capitulate instead.
While it satisfied the critics outside the Air Force, it was potentially detrimental to the religious freedom of the military members within the Air Force.
With reference to the Religion Clause.