Do What Now?

Mikey Weinstein, CEO of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has sent a blistering letter to Chief of Staff Gen, Mark Welsh, arguing that Olson's comments violate an Air Force instruction, which prohibits airmen from endorsing a particular faith or belief.

"Olson's highly publicized, sectarian speech is nothing less than a brutal disgrace to the very uniform he was wearing and the solemn oath he took to support and defend the United States Constitution," Weinstein writes.
I'm not a JAG lawyer -- perhaps Joel or Joesph W. is around? -- but I'm pretty sure it's OK to pray in uniform. Not only are there designated chaplains, but in Iraq I constantly saw groups of soldiers gathering in circles to pray before going outside the wire to do route clearance or dismounted patrols. Who's going to claim soldiers ought not to pray before such a mission?

But here's the letter, and this is what they claim he's done wrong:
2.12. Balance of Free Exercise of Religion and Establishment Clause. Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for their own free exercise of religion, including individual expressions of religious beliefs, and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. They must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief, or absence of belief. (emphasis added)

In light of your very own Air Force regulation, irrefutably on point with the matter herein, and the violation of which is proscribed as a potential FELONY under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, do you honestly NOT see any incredibly serious problems here with Olson’s statements, Mark? Please also note the controlling holding of the seminal 1974 Supreme Court case of Parker vs. Levy (417 U.S. 733), penned by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, significantly limiting the Constitutional rights of active duty military members (such as Major General Olson) vs. the same rights enjoyed by their American civilian counterparts....

Consequently, on behalf of itself and its over 41,000 active duty and veteran armed forces clients, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) hereby demands that Major General Craig S. Olson be immediately, aggressively and very visibly brought to justice for his unforgivable crimes and transgressions via trial by General Courts Martial and that any and all others who assisted him with his NDPTF speech of fundamentalist Christian supremacy be likewise investigated and punished to the full extent of military law.
So the claim is that his remarks at a prayer service constitute a felony for which he ought to be imprisoned (since that is 'the fullest extent' of punishment licensed for these 'unforgivable crimes').

Now, this is a letter posted to the internet by crackpots. Still, how strange to see the lines drawn this way by any American. It's hard to believe that this makes sense to any of our countrymen at all.


Texan99 said...

I don't want to make too much of this unless and until the military or the U.S. government pays some attention to the crackpot organization, but I'm a little confused: this wasn't a speech given by a commander to his men, but an address at a private Christian gathering? You have to wonder if the crackpot thinks a general is not allowed to stand in church and recite the Nicene Creed. He probably needs to go think this through some more.

Cass said...

Any time an officer speaks at a private event in his uniform, it's probably safe to say he's giving the impression that he's speaking as an agent of the military (IOW, in his official capacity as a military officer rather than as a private citizen).

I think the recent story about folks marching in red high heels and uniforms is a somewhat-fair parallel: had they marched in high heels and civvies, no issue arises but if they march in uniform (or worse, in partial uniform) it's kind of a different story.

But I don't know enough about this to be sure of what I'm saying. I do think it could present an appearance problem. I also think these folks are Internet crackpots, and that the real test needs to be, "What do the regs say?".

The problem, of course, is that no one ever cares about appearances when a service member (heh... she said memb... oh, nevermind :) wears his/her uniform to say something we agree with, and people on both sides appear to get majorly bent out of shape when a service member speaks out in uniform and says something they *disagree* with (especially when it's a high ranking officer).

That said, I really doubt it's a FELONY!!!!!11!!!!!!11111!!!ELEVENTY!! and I also think these folks are need to dial back the drama if they don't want everyone to think they've gone cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

I'm also not sure I buy that this event is the same as a church service (hopefully even Woody Woodpecker here can agree that it's OK for an officer to go to church and talk about God in his uniform, but these days nothing much surprises me....).

Texan99 said...

I agree a prayer meeting is not a church service, and I think you're right that it makes a difference whether he's wearing his uniform while declaiming before a public audience. But the crackpot letter seemed to be placing a lot of emphasis on the surprising crime of stating a specific religious premise out loud, so it's worth thinking through what prohibiting that kind of thing could lead to. It's not as though he were addressing Congress or issuing orders to everyone under his command; he was speaking at a prayer conference, for pity's sake. Granted that some places are more appropriate venues than others for provocative religious argument, surely a prayer gathering is a good one?

Grim said...

A missing issue with the high heels was the alleged compulsion of a humiliating display. The disanalogy here comes in that this was fully voluntary by an officer speaking of his actual beliefs, not the use of command authority to compel a political display from subordinates without regard to their actual thoughts on the issue at hand.

If the high heels thing was fully voluntary, command might still say, "You know, that's against regulations and represents pretty bad judgment -- in spite of your good intentions, you're sexualizing the uniform and that isn't helpful." But that's maybe NJP or Art-15 stuff at most, and probably just a talking-to. Nobody should go to prison over it.

Tex's point is a good one, too. The regulation they quote seems as if it is intended to mean, 'No officer shall suggest that the US military officially endorses this religion and not that one, or prefers its members to adopt this religion and not that one, nor shall they treat members of one religion better than another.' It sounds like this group would prefer it be read, 'No one shall ever profess belief in any religion while in uniform, since declaring one religion to be true even in your personal opinion constitutes an endorsement of that religion, and if you do it in uniform that makes it official.'

If that very different reading is even slightly plausible to military officials (I assume it will not prove to be), the law should be clarified to eliminate that possibility. Which, by the way, this story was brought to my attention by my Congressman.

E Hines said...

Mikey Weinstein is well-known in some circles. He raised a religious beef against Liberty Institute a few months ago. He was invited into court to discuss the matter, and he's not been heard from since.

This person bears watching, but he's not, yet, to be taken seriously. It'll be interesting to see how the timid persons in the Pentagon deal with him.

Eric Hines

Cass said...

While still thinking "Mikey" is a troublemaking nutjob, I can see a fair argument for an officer not stating that he could ONLY do his job with God's help.

If God gets all the credit for a successful military career, then doesn't that imply that someone who doesn't believe in God could not succeed?

All of this sounds like whiny wounded snowflake nonsense to me, but the Air Force Academy in particular has a history of people going a bit overboard in the other direction.

The disanalogy here comes in that this was fully voluntary by an officer speaking of his actual beliefs, not the use of command authority to compel a political display from subordinates without regard to their actual thoughts on the issue at hand.

The point is not whether a General officer was coerced into talking about his faith in uniform, but whether subordinates would feel pressured by his open statement in uniform that it was impossible for him to succeed in the military without God's help.

I don't happen to think this guy should be punished at all. It's quite possible that he should be privately counseled about the difference between statements made in public and in uniform at an event sponsored by a group with an associated PAC and those made in a private setting in civvies. Poor judgment, in my book.

This really is not rocket science.

Grim said...

If God gets all the credit for a successful military career, then doesn't that imply that someone who doesn't believe in God could not succeed?

Not obviously. I can think of two counterarguments:

1) "I could not have succeeded without God's help" does not equal "No one could succeed at this job without God's help."

2) Believing in God isn't necessary for obtaining God's help. That's even a point of doctrine, since God in the OT frequently works punishments through pagan armies.

So even if you said "Absolutely no one could possibly do this job without God's help," you'd not thereby be suggesting that only a Christian (or Jew, Muslim, whatever) could do it. You'd just be asserting a personal belief that any person who did it was receiving some sort of divine help.

Actually, the statement is theologically sound under standard Catholic theology: the Church teaches that it is God who holds you in existence, so without that divine attention you really couldn't do your job. Even if you are the one doing the rest of the work, you still couldn't do it alone (because you wouldn't be to do it).

Cass said...

This was a pretty balanced article on the Air Force policy and the controversy in general:

This part, in particular, seems to make the point that personal expressions of faith can't be punished, though it refers to a draft of the policy:

The draft instead only read "expression of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) shall not be prohibited unless the expression would have a real, not hypothetical, adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, health and safety, and mission accomplishment."

As I've already stated, I think Weinstein is... well, whiny and arguably nuts. I've written about him before, and not in flattering terms.

Finally, I don't think it's a slam dunk that the general's remarks are tantamount to saying, "We only want believers in MY Air Force". But it could certainly be perceived that way (especially given the history here). That's the problem with using subjective perceptions rather than a reasonable man standard.

It's easy to dismiss someone's concerns when you don't share them, but having spent 6 1/2 years of my life stationed at recruit training and at one of the service academies, all sorts of foolishness *does* occur. And it ain't all people like Mikey - there are zealots in the military and just because I believe in God doesn't mean I think proselytization is OK at the office.

One of my first jobs was at the Navy Exchange. We had 2 evangelical Christians there who were no better than bullies. They continually started fights, insulted Jews and Catholics, said the Holocaust was a hoax... oh, and anyone who didn't share their brand of Christianity was going straight to Hell. They were offensive trolls of the worst kind and they had a poisonous effect on the work atmosphere.

Thankfully, the vast majority of Christians are NOTHING like that, but not every rule limiting religious expression is bad on its face. And senior officers in particular SHOULD have less latitude than junior ones, and should also be expected to demonstrate some SA.

Same words, out of uniform, and I have no problem with him. I wouldn't punish him even IN uniform absent a clear violation of the regs. But I still question his judgment.

Texan99 said...

If Mikey got his way, I can certainly see a situation in which the message was very clear, "We have no place for anyone but atheists in this Air Force."

I'd hope that the quoted restriction was meant to address problems like chaplains who urged the men not to kill, on religious grounds, or service members who urged their comrades to accept orders only from people of a particular religion--"you don't have to take orders from a Jew/Papist/Mormon/Atheist/Anabaptist," for instance.

It really hasn't been that many years since Great Britain had explicit disqualifications for certain religions. We were supposed to get away from all that here.

Cass said...

If Mikey got his way, I can certainly see a situation in which the message was very clear, "We have no place for anyone but atheists in this Air Force."

And that would be an impermissible and grossly inappropriate message as well.

It really hasn't been that many years since Great Britain had explicit disqualifications for certain religions. We were supposed to get away from all that here.

Unless we figure out a way to get away from human nature, none of this goes away. The rules allow redress when things get out of hand. Incidentally, Mikey is the one who filed suit in 2005 and the official report, while not finding intentional wrongdoing, DID note quite a bit of inappropriately exercised command pressure/proselytization.

I think most people understand there's more pressure from people in the command than from one's peers. That's why officers and staff NCOs have to be more careful about what they say and do, and that's part of what makes the military function well: the understanding that a PFC isn't a 3 star, and vice versa. All things considered, we expect more from the 3 star. He has more limits and should be held to a higher standard.

I don't think we want to quash that healthy tradition, especially in a case like this where (as you already noted) it's extremely unlikely Mikey will prevail.

Interesting thought exercise: read this article and replace every instance of "God" with "Allah". I think most people here would have a problem with the whole "Team Allah" concept, and not allowing an atheist club when you have 19 or 20 Christian clubs... well, not sure what the rationale was there :p

I thought the 2005 commission got it right: some inappropriate behavior/poor judgment, but no major felonies. The remedy for that is counseling, not felony charges.

What a maroon this guy is.


Cass said...

Heh... I started wondering what I'd written about Mikey in the past:

1. 2013: Mikey claims proselytization is spiritual rape:

2. Mikey tries to get David Petraeus court martialed (sound familiar?) for endorsing the Army spiritual handbook in 2008.

Didn't work :p

Bonus: in one of the posts I argue that giving God credit for your military career success isn't problematic. Granted, the officers involved were in civvies at someone's house, which I think I argued here would have been OK.

Mikey has a long history of loony lawsuits and positions, and so far he doesn't seem to be winning. Hopefully people will continue to make fun of him until he gets bored and goes away.

Texan99 said...

Would I be troubled if an officer said that Allah makes all things possible, therefore anything he had achieved was really to be credited to Allah? I don't think I would. The polite thing is to keep it vague and talk about a higher power; even politer is to be extremely vague about whether the Big Guy really plays a part in things. People don't get too nervous with the idea that He steps into things in a very general way, but the idea that He plays a part in any specific life seems to make us nervous. Apparently if you believe that, you're supposed to keep a lid on it in public. Or you're supposed to confine it to the idea that, in a particularly difficult time of your life, God was on your shoulder helping you make the right moral decision. That way people don't start sidling away from you.

But again--can you really not talk about that kind of religious conviction even at a prayer meeting? Just because you wear a uniform? Isn't it enough to disagree with the guy, without actively silencing him?

E Hines said...

Would I be troubled if an officer said that Allah makes all things possible, therefore anything he had achieved was really to be credited to Allah?

That would depend on what kind of man that officer was. In any event, the answer is to aver that God made all things possible for me. In plain words.

The polite thing is to keep it vague....

Respectfully, I disagree. Keeping things deliberately vague doesn't keep things damped down; it encourages further hyping up. Plain talk is always appropriate; those who are going to respond with manufactured offense are going to find an excuse to be offended, anyway.

Eric Hines

Texan99 said...

I meant "polite" ironically. It seems to be the prevailing idea of what's required by polite discourse.

I don't personally always enjoy it when someone tells me more than I want to hear about the details of his religious convictions, especially if they're uttered in a proselytizing way that doesn't invite discourse. But again, he was speaking at a prayer meeting, not chatting with me at my dinner table. I don't subscribe to any sense of "polite" discourse that would force him to hem and haw about it in that context.

E Hines said...

Guess I need a new irony detector. The one I had seems to have been shorted out by the dampness we've been having....

Eric Hines

Cass said...

Would I be troubled if an officer said that Allah makes all things possible, therefore anything he had achieved was really to be credited to Allah? I don't think I would.

I don't see any difference between the two either: if you're OK with one, you should be OK with the other. But I'm always amazed at how many outraged posts I see every week by people who do have a problem with mentioning faith in Allah but not with mentioning faith in God. The first is too often viewed as unacceptable, in-your-face proselytizing, the second as a beautiful and natural celebration of religious freedom :p

I don't really understand that if the point is to support lawfully expressed religious freedom or worship (honor killings being one obvious example of unlawful religious expression).

The irony here is that in reading about this event, the national day of prayer was apparently established by Congress :p

I did not know that!

I can only repeat what I've said several times:

1. I don't think he should be punished unless he broke some kind of military regulation.

2. I think Mikey is an utter whackadoodle.

3. I do think it might have been better for the General to appear in his capacity as a citizen, not as a representative of the Air Force chain of command. But if his appearing in uniform is OK with the military then who am I to object?

Symbols have meaning, and a uniform is a BIG symbol. Rank insignia are also highly symbolic ("this person speaks for the organization because he's at the top of the food chain"). My personal belief is that when you're representing yourself as a private citizen, you have more latitude than when you're in the office acting as an employee.

This isn't a novel concept: I speak differently in the office than I do at home: more circumspectly, because I'm in a position where what I do does reflect upon my employer (and my words and actions may reasonably be imputed to my employer).

I don't think this guy has done anything to be ashamed of or apologize for, but I do think it would have been better to keep the rank separate from the private expression of faith. But that's just me.

What really counts (since he chose to wear his uniform) is what the Air Force says about it.

Grim said...

Well, that's the ideal. I suspect the reality is that this is already above the USAF food chain, since he's got vocal top-cover from a sitting member of Congress. My congressman is on the judiciary committee, which is charged with protecting civil liberties in the legal process via Congressional oversight. Any military lawyer who thought to file charges would have to take on board the near certainty of being summoned before Congress to testify and have his judgment rather publicly questioned.

That suggests to me that nothing will happen unless the political part of the Executive branch decides to make an issue of it. But I still think the regulation might be clarified to make sure that the wild-eyed reading is clearly not the one the text supports.

Grim said...

I think I remember that Joe has told me that military lawyers wouldn't file the charges in the way a civilian DA would, but rather recommend charges to the chain of command, who would make the decision. So, it's some four-star who would have to take responsibility for it. Given the political savvy of most four-stars (not all!), I'd guess they won't pick a fight with Congress, unless there's significant pressure from the civilian leadership in the executive to do it.

Joel Leggett said...

This is ridiculousness on stilts. The General did not commit a felony. A simple statement of religious belief in uniform at a prayer breakfast violates no provision of the UCMJ and does not, under any reasonable construction, imply or promote endorsement of or preferential treatment of one belief system over any other or none at all. This isn’t going anywhere.

Grim said...

Well, there you have it.

MikeD said...

The General did not commit a felony.

The only thing I will say in defense of Mikey's thesis here is that it is true that IF the action was a violation of UCMJ (and I cannot really form any construction where it actually is, but IF it were) then it would indeed be a felony. Because all articles of the UCMJ are federal offenses and considered felonies. But that's it. He's a broken record who really would like nothing more than to compel atheism out of the military (or at least, a complete silence from non-atheists on religious matters while serving).

Grim said...

Well, in fairness, you can see why that would be tempting. It's not like no one has ever succeeded at forcing members of the military to toe some line of political correctness in their private as well as their public lives.

Joel Leggett said...

No, not all UCMJ violations are considered felonies, either in the federal system or the different state jurisdictions. Believe me, Solicitation or attempting to break restriction or a less than 30 day UA is not a felony any where.