Religious intolerance at Wright-Patt?
Religious intolerance at Wright-Patt? August 2008
|National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, Fairborn
By Marshall Weiss
The Dayton Jewish Observer
Each year, more than one and a half million visitors stream through the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air force Base in Fairborn.
Walking between the cavernous early flight and World War II hangars, tourists, veterans and school groups must pass through a replica of the main gate of Auschwitz and into Prejudice and Memory: A Mobile Holocaust Exhibit.
The exhibit, curated by local survivor Renate Frydman on behalf of the Dayton Holocaust Resource Center, has been on permanent display at the Air Force museum since 1999.
It is the museum’s way of illustrating why the United States goes to war: to defeat the tyranny that destroys human freedom.
|Military Religious Freedom Foundation Pres. Mikey Weinstein (Center) with his son and daughter-in-law Casey and Amanda Weinstein|
But according to Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation — and his son and daughter-in-law Casey and Amanda Weinstein of Fairborn — Wright-Patterson Air Force base is a “hotbed” of “unconstitutional religious intolerance.”
On March 5, Weinstein’s foundation filed a comprehensive lawsuit against the Department of Defense. The lawsuit, filed with co-plaintiff U.S. Army Specialist Jeremy Hall, an atheist, alleges that while stationed in Iraq, Hall was the victim of retaliation and reprisal because of his views.
The foundation, which Weinstein himself describes as “militant” and “in your face,” aims to ensure that military personnel don’t use their official positions to endorse particular religious views on subordinates while on duty. This practice, Weinstein says, particularly by fundamentalist evangelical Christians in the U.S. military, is pervasive.
“It has nothing to do with their religious faith, it has to do with their trying to impose their religious faith using the draconian structure of the military command influence,” Weinstein says while visiting his son and daughter-in-law at their Fairborn home.
“We now have over 8,300 (foundation) clients that are active duty members: the Marine Corps, Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Reserve Guard,” he says. “Ninety-six percent of them are Christians. Of the 96 percent, three-fourths are Protestant, one-fourth Catholic. (The other) four percent are Jewish, Wiccan, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic.”
According to Weinstein, the 96 percent who are Christians seek help from the foundation because the message they receive from their military command is, “they’re not Christian enough.”
Of Weinstein’s 8,300 clients, he says more than 100 are from Wright-Patt.
He established the foundation in 2004 as a result of the proselytizing and antisemitism his sons, Casey and Curtis, experienced as cadets at the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs. Weinstein is also a graduate of the academy.
The foundation’s October 2004 suit against the Air Force Academy was ultimately thrown out because of a technicality.
On Feb. 9, 2006, the Air Force issued new guidelines on religious tolerance and practices for the Air Force and the academy.
“They’re just pretty words that mean nothing,” Weinstein said of the guidelines at the time.
He’s been all over the media lately. The last several weeks have included interviews with The New York Times and CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. His family’s story with the academy comprises about a third of the new documentary film, Constantine’s Sword, based on James Carroll’s book about the history of church-sanctioned antisemitism.
Weinstein and his wife live in Albuquerque under 24-hour security. They’ve received five death threats. Their tires have been slashed, and feces have been thrown at their house, which was vandalized last month with swastikas and crosses.
At public speaking engagements, Mikey Weinstein says he often reads a letter he received in July 2006 from a former contractor at Wright-Patt. Back at home in Albuquerque, he reads from the letter on the phone:
“I worked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for just over a year as a civilian contractor…Staff meetings were prefaced and closed by fundamentalist Christian prayer sessions, and the senior NCOs who led the prayer sessions made it clear to the military trainees that they were judged on whether or not they enthusiastically participated. The trainee air persons were given the choice of attending fundamentalist Christian religious prayer ceremonies on Sunday or being assigned to particularly onerous substitute duties. It was made very clear to them that decent evaluations and a successful training period leading to a tolerable term of enlistment or a career in the Air Force included completely embracing fundamentalist Christianity…I was appalled to find groups of senior officers praying as a decision-making aid…Once I got to know people and heard more conversations, I realized that for many officers, the war in Iraq is not at all politically motivated, but religiously motivated. It is a fundamentalist Christian jihad that will bring on the apocalypse and rapture, which is what they want…Hearing this from people who hold destructive atomic and nuclear weapon systems is terrifying to me…immediately after I renewed my contract, I was repeatedly and aggressively proselytized and told to ‘get with the Jesus program and help spread the word of Jesus.’”
Casey Weinstein describes the atmosphere when he was stationed on active duty at Wright-Patt in 2005.
“I had an issue early on with mandatory prayer at a mandatory Thanksgiving luncheon given when I first got to my unit,” Casey Weinstein says.
He says that a prayer at the luncheon was offered in Jesus’ name, a violation of Air Force guidelines.
“I was told I could go and address the issue with one of the unit members…I addressed the issue in a very calm manner. I said, ‘I just want to let you know there are new guidelines about this.’”
Another issue that came up, Casey Weinstein says, was religious content sent out through official base e-mail.
“It was called The War on Christmas (an excerpt from the book by former Fox News anchor John Gibson) and it was sent out to a bunch of people using official e-mail that just trashes on people who have problems with Christmas being in the workplace.”
Casey Weinstein went to his direct supervisor to discuss this e-mail.
“Now apparently, he heard that I had complained about the Christian prayer in Jesus’ name on Thanksgiving, which was supposed to be a secular prayer,” he says. “So he flipped out. He started yelling at me, with the door open, in front of subordinates, basically just ruining my credibility in the squadron. I got back up and got in his face and showed him the regulations and showed him the regulation about not being allowed to use e-mail for those purposes, here’s the appropriate prayers, and he backed down really quickly.”
“In the military, they want complete and team players,” Mikey Weinstein says. “Anyone who says, ‘That’s great, but you’re in violation of the bedrock principle of our country, which is our Constitution — It’s asking too much of a young trooper to stand up. And it’s very hard to say, ‘No sir, no ma’am, you can’t do this.’”
Casey Weinstein’s wife, Amanda, also graduated from the Air Force Academy and was on active duty at Wright Patt. She is a Unitarian. Together, they attend Temple Israel, a Unitarian church, and a Buddhist fellowship.
“I gained this new perspective of what it’s like to be a minority in the military,” she says. “Because for me, I never had to ask to get Christmas off. I never had to ask to get Easter off. And all of a sudden, I have to ask to get Yom Kippur off and go to services. And I’d ask and they’d just say no — here in Dayton. And then I was repeatedly told no, I can’t go to Yom Kippur services by our exec, a captain, and finally Dad had to get involved and say, ‘No, she can go to services.’”
Casey Weinstein and his wife are now inactive reservists awaiting active reserve jobs.
“It’s unbelievable,” Mikey Weinstein says. “In the headquarters building at Materiel Command (at Wright-Patt), you go to the ladies’ room or the men’s room and they are handing out — this is where the four-star general sits — handing out pamphlets for a class that they’re trying to urge people to go to see. The title of the class was Jesus vs. Mohammed: An Examination of the Life of Both Prophets and Why Jesus Christ is Superior to All, at a nearby off-base mega-evangelical church here in the community. You couldn’t do a better recruiting film for al-Qaeda or the Taliban.”
In an e-mail to The Observer, Laura McGowan of the 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs office, responds, “The Air Force and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base are absolutely committed to the Constitution’s protections for free exercise of religion and its prohibition against government establishment of religion. It is wrong for an Air Force member or civilian employee to officially endorse or denounce any particular religion, and to improperly influence subordinates regarding religion. Such actions violate Air Force policy and could run afoul of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.”
However, she also writes that “consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, Air Force members and employees may freely exercise their own religions, to include participating in worship, prayer, study and voluntary discussions of religion so long as it is reasonably clear they are acting in their personal, not official, capacity.”
When asked whether anyone at Wright-Patt has used his or her official position to endorse a religious view on a subordinate while either or both were on duty, she responds that in the past two years, one person complained that a supervisor improperly referred to an office holiday activity as a Christmas event.
“The allegation,” she writes, “was promptly investigated and corrective action was taken.” However, she adds that “during this time frame, no one filed a complaint alleging a supervisor or commander had improperly endorsed or denounced a particular religion or attempted to influence a subordinate concerning religion.”
Mikey Weinstein says the military has tried to prevent people from contacting his foundation.
Casey Weinstein adds that most are too scared to contact the foundation. He says that most proselytizing comes from officers. “The officers are the ones with the power. Even if an enlisted person has these beliefs, they don’t always have the power to force it on others. Officers do.”
McGowan points out that the Air Force cannot act until “Airmen or civilian employees come forward with specific factual allegations.”
These complaints, she writes, can be lodged at the Equal Opportunity Office, the Inspector General’s Office, the wing chapel or directly with a commander. “Officials at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base promptly investigate and take appropriate action in response to each complaint.”
“How can you use your chain of command when it’s completely and totally corroded?” Mikey Weinstein says.
Mikey Weinstein theorizes that the religious intolerance he sees now began to take shape in the U.S. military in 1972, with the end of the draft. During the draft, he says, soldiers were drawn “fairly uniformly from what we now refer to as blue and red states. With the end of the draft, we saw this gigantic demographic shift of superpatriotism mostly moving into red states.”
He says he’s pretty much given up on support from Jewish organizations for the foundation’s cause.
“I can’t tell you how many ADL people have come to me and said how disappointed they were that ADL wasn’t on the vanguard of this,” he says.
“If less than four percent of our clients are Jewish, why does this matter? Because Jews have a special responsibility, whether we like it or not, whether an assiduously secular Jew, an atheistic Jew or a Lubavicher living in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Jews tend to be the miner’s canary for the morale of the community in which we live.”
When Gen. Norton Schwartz, a Jew, was recommended as the new chief of staff of the Air Force in June, a reporter asked Mikey Weinstein if it was a victory for him. “Because there’s a Jew in there, that’s supposed to make everything fine?” he says. “It’s not fine. It doesn’t make a difference that he’s there. The reason to me is that he’s a yes man. He’s not going to stand up to do what needs to be done. But we’ll see.”
On June 30, the ADL called on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to hold “clearly needed” hearings on religious activity in the military.
The ADL statement said, “Charges of religious harassment and unwelcome proselytizing are disturbing in the context of the command structure within the military and the nation’s service academies.”
Mikey Weinstein says the ADL is three years late. “We don’t need guidelines. We have the U.S. Constitution. What we need are 400 court marshals.”
On July 8, the U.S. Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss the foundation and Hall’s lawsuit on the grounds that Hall didn’t take his complaints to the chain of command and that Hall and the foundation lack standing to sue the Department of Defense.
Mikey Weinstein believes this case will ultimately go to the Supreme Court. “Right now, we lose 5-4 on our best day at the Supreme Court,” he says. “Besides our fight, the two greatest threats that are facing this country is the fact that John Paul Stevens is 88 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 75 and ailing. And oh my God. This country was not designed to have representative democracy supplanted by theocracy.”