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Religious Expression or Religious Coercion: Commanders Caught in the Crossfire - Background
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To understand this growing tension, one must acknowledge the Constitutional complexity, the command responsibility, a watchdog group’s concerns, and the chilling effect within the military.

Constitutional Complexity
Depending on one’s viewpoint of the First Amendent’s Establishment and Free Exercise clauses, religious expression within the military is being either rightfully challenged or viciously attacked. As America becomes more cuturally sensitive and secular, world-view battles are becoming more energized and polarized.8 Certainly, the complexity of the First Amendment gives opportunity for individuals to proof-text their arguments.9


As groups become more energized to wage media and litigation battles against perceived military religious coercion, these groups are taking aim at commanders and chaplains. This challenge is not new; it is not the first time someone challenged the military chaplaincy.10 In 1979, Joel Katcoff and Allen Weider, two Harvard students, sued the Secretary of the Army believing the chaplaincy program violated the Establishment Clause on the separation of church and state principle. In 1985, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the military chaplaincy did not violate the Establishment Clause. Even though funded with tax dollars, the Court found the chaplaincy was constitutional because it preserved a soldier’s right to exercise freely his religion.11 Unfortunately, this constitutional complexity exposes commanders to become a target as they embrace their full command responsibilities.

Command Responsibility
From a regulatory perspective, commanders are responsible, among many other things, to ensure military members are free to exercise their faith. As previously mentioned, DOD Directive 1304.19 states it is the commanders’ responsibility to provide for the “free exercise of religion in the context of military service as guaranteed by the Constitution.”12 Additionally, Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2618 addresses the Airmen’s need to maintain the highest level of personal readiness in order to meet mission requirements. Section 3.1.4 stresses Airmen are to be technically, physically, mentally, spiritually, and deployment ready. In this holistic approach, the USAF acknowledges spiritual readiness is a component of Airmen being able to accomplish the USAF’s demanding mission. This AFI defines spiritual readiness as “the development of those personal qualities needed to help a person through times of stress, hardship, and tragedy. Spiritual readiness may or may not include religious activities.”13 Thus, the USAF values spiritual readiness and supports First Amendment guarantees of free exercise for Airmen.

The commanders’ challenge, therefore, is how to support spiritual readiness while avoiding the perception or reality of establishing a state supported religion. Equally challenging is how commanders can express their own faith tenets, as protected by the First Amendment of free exercise of religion and speech, to their Airmen without creating an environment of religious coercion. In support of the commanders’responsibility to protect free exercise of religion, chaplains provide “spiritual care and the opportunity for USAF members, their families, and other authorized personnel to exercise their Constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.”14

Consequently, commanders are increasingly cautious of expressing anything related to the spiritual or to their own faith. Even chaplains are being challenged with accusations of proselytizing.15 Why? Groups, like the Military Religion Freedom Foundation, are bringing litigation and media attention to what they define as constitutional abuses against Airmen.

Military Religion Freedom Foundation’s Concerns
Military Religion Freedom Foundation (MRFF) is one group that describes itself as a watchdog against religious coercion. Others, like Americans United Against Separation of Church and State and American Civil Liberities Union also litigate against perceived religious abuses.16 These watchdog groups are challenging military members, especially commanders, for using their position to promote religion and to coerce Airmen to a particular religion. These groups are especially leery of evangelical Christians.17 In contrast, evangelical Chrisitians feel equally strongly that they are within their guaranteed First Amendment rights when they exercise their faith tenets of following Christ’s commandment of making disciples.18 The result is a collision between religious coercion and religious expression.

This paper will use MRFF as a representative watchdog group as they are more exclusively focused on the military than the others. The MRFF homepage states, it “is dedicated to ensuring that all members of the U.S. Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom to which they and all Americans are entitled by virtue of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment and the “no religious test” of Article VI.”19 MRFF states its role “is to ensure that our government does indeed adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution; that it leads by example. The next chapter in the never-ending struggle to expand religious freedom in the military is being written, and MRFF is playing a critical part in the effort. A watchdog’s role requires constant vigilance.”20

While MRFF appears to support religious freedom from all perspectives, MRFF often targets evangelical Christians. Why? MRFF’s founder, Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, stated his initial reasons for creating MRFF were personal. Both he and his sons “were subjected to taunts and derision because of their Jewish faith and had faced proselytizing both from their peers and superiors.”21 So, he started MRFF to protect the constitutional rights of “non-evangelical Christians, those of minority faiths and those who chose not to worship at all, from experiencing illegal proselytizing and evangelizing.”22 Apparently, Mikey Weinstein received two beatings by upper-classmen in retaliation for his reporting anti-semitic remarks to his USAF Academy’s chain of command. It is little surprise, then, Mikey’s anger boiled in 2004 when his son Curtis stated he planned “to beat the shit out of the next guy that calls me a ‘fucking Jew.’”23 According to Jeff Sharlet’s article, Weinstein targeted “weaponized Christianity”24 as his enemy. Using MRFF as his weapon, Weinstein stated, “We will lay down withering fire and open sucking chest wounds. This country is facing a pervasive and pernicious pattern and practice of unconstitutional rape of the religious rights of our armed forces members.”25

Are Airmen really being coerced by military leadership and chaplains resulting in Airmen’s insidious harm or ruin? Are they being unconstitutionally raped of religious rights? Are groups like MRFF legitimately finding infractions of religious coercion and bringing it to the military’s and public’s attention through media news releases and litigation? From MRFF’s perspective, “the constitutional violations occurring in our military are so numerous and widespread that we can't possibly find all of them ourselves. MRFF counts on its supporters and volunteers -- the indispensable ‘eyes and ears’ who alert us.”26 Is MRFF’s email solicitation for any constitutional violations focusing a laser beam of discovery or is it creating media frenzy and a growing hostile environment toward religion within the USAF? As MRFF confronts the DOD for its “pervasive and pernicious pattern and practice of unconstitutional rape,”27 what effect does this have?

Chilling Effect

The National Association of Evangelicals believes MRFF’s efforts are having a chilling effect on free exercise of religion and constitutionally-protected religious speech.28 Additionally, this author believes the religious climate has significantly changed in the USAF in the past two decades. Following a Chief of Chaplain’s briefing to a Wing Commander’s class at Maxwell AFB, AL in July 2009, this author noted all questions from commanders related to their concerns about expressing anything spiritual as a military leader. Additionally, this author validated, through personal interviews, many commanders’ growing hesitancy to express their faith or anything spiritual within a military setting.29

Are commanders and chaplains using their positions of power to coerce or unduly influence Airmen to accept something that would normally be against their will? Are Airmen being deprived of their freedom of choice? Merriam-Webster’s Law Dictionary defines coercion, as “the use of express or implied threats of violence or reprisal or other intimidating behavior that puts a person in immediate fear of the consequences in order to compel that person to act against his or her will.”30 Coercion thus carries a connotation of forcefully persuading another to do something against his or her will. Undue influence is “improper influence that deprives a person of freedom of choice or substitutes another's choice or desire for the person's own.”31 These issues demand a careful analysis.

Last Updated on Monday, 11 July 2011 11:30