Everybody’s heard the familiar cliché, “You can’t have freedom of religion without freedom from religion,” but what does that really mean? Well, in the battles waged by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) to protect and defend the First Amendment rights of every member of our armed forces, it means that the military must stop allowing the “Free Exercise” clause to trump the “Establishment Clause.” In other words, the military can’t keep ignoring and allowing clearly unconstitutional promotions of religion by claiming that they aren’t violations of the Establishment Clause, but merely the free exercise of religion.
When a chaplain runs a Christian concert as a chapel event, that’s free exercise of religion. But, when a commanding general runs a Christian concert called the “Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness Concert,” and soldiers are punished for not attending this religious event, that’s a violation of the Establishment Clause. Is it really that hard for people to see the difference?
For years, MRFF has been saying that if the military would only start paying equal attention and giving equal weight to both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, many of the problems being reported by our service members would solve themselves. And, at long last, someone is listening — General Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
The recent revelation by MRFF, reported by Truthout, that a mandatory part of the Air Force’s nuclear missile launch officer “ethics” training was a Christian theological presentation, nicknamed the “Jesus Loves Nukes speech” by some missile officers, was apparently the constitutional violation that broke the camel’s back. Not only did this revelation result in the Air Force immediately suspending the “Jesus Loves Nukes” training, but a review of all of the Air Force’s so-called “ethics” training, much of which is chock full of inappropriate and unconstitutional religious content.
But the Air Force didn’t stop there. General Schwartz has now issued the following memorandum to the Air Force. It doesn’t get more clear than this!
MEMORANDUM FOR ALMAJCOM-FOA-DRU/CC
FROM: HQ USAF/CC
1670 Air Force Pentagon
Washington, DC 20330-1670
SUBJECT: Maintaining 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 its prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. For example, they must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order, and discipline.
Chaplain Corps programs, including activities such as religious studies, faith sharing, and prayer meetings, are vital to commanders’ support of individual Airmen’s needs and provide opportunities for the free exercise of religion. Although commanders are responsible for these programs they must refrain from appearing to officially endorse religion generally or any particular religion. Therefore, I expect chaplains, not commanders, to notify Airmen of Chaplain Corps programs.
Our chaplains are trained to provide advice to leadership on matters related to the free exercise of religion and to help commanders care for all of their people, regardless of their beliefs. If you have concerns involving the preservation of government neutrality regarding religious beliefs, consult with your chaplain and staff judge advocate before you act.
NORTON A. SCHWARTZ
Chief of Staff
Upon reading General Schwartz’s memorandum, MRFF Founder and president Mikey Weinstein issued the following statement:
“General Schwartz deserves significant kudos and comprehensive congratulations for being THE most senior Pentagon official to date to ever send this strong a mandate of Constitutional religious compliance to our United States armed forces members. While MRFF wishes that such a letter had been sent by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force a very long time ago, the old adage ‘better late than never’ most certainly applies. While this letter may not be a home run, it is a damn good line drive single to potentially start a rally of Constitutional religious freedom compliance, which has been scandalously lacking in the entire Defense Department for decades. Gen. Schwartz has the U.S. Air Force at least now ‘talking the talk.’ Whether the USAF can ‘walk the walk’ will depend upon many factors, not the least of which is whether ANYONE in the Air Force is EVER punished for violating its clear mandates of Constitutional recognition for BOTH the No Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the Bill of Rights’ First Amendment. To that end, we must all remember that while the First Commandment says, ‘You can’t have any other Gods before Me,’ the First Amendment says, ‘Oh yes you can!’”