Top Air Force Official Issues Religious Neutrality Policy in Wake of Truthout’s “Jesus Loves Nukes” Exposé

September 14, 2011 (Truthout) – A top US Air Force official, in an attempt to ensure the Air Force adheres to the Constitution as well as its own regulations and policies, issued guidelines that calls on “leaders at all levels” to take immediate steps to maintain “government neutrality regarding religion.”

In his policy memorandum dated September 1, but sent Tuesday to all major commands, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz said, “Leaders … must balance Constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and its prohibition against governmental establishment of religion.”

The First Amendment establishes a wall of separation between church and state and Clause 3, Article 6 of the Constitution specifically prohibits a “religious test.”

The memo was issued a month after Truthout published an exclusive report revealing how, for two decades, the Air Force used numerous Bible passages and religious imagery to teach nuclear missile officers about the morals and ethics of launching nuclear weapons, a decision that one senior Air Force officer told Truthout last month should have “instantly” resulted in the firing of the commanders who allowed it to take place.

The Air Force immediately suspended the mandatory Nuclear Ethics and Nuclear Warfare training immediately following the publication of Truthout’s report. David Smith, a spokesman for the Air Education and Training Command told Truthout last month the ethics training “has been taken out of the curriculum and is being reviewed.”

“The commander reviewed it and decided we needed to have a good hard look at it and make sure it reflected views of modern society,” Smith said.

The decison angered Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) who fired off an angry letter to Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley criticizing the move and demanding Donley provide him with a report detailing “actions taken” by the Air Force that led to the suspension of the ethics training.

But the Air Force went further, pulling all of its training materials “that address morals, ethics, core values and related character development issues” pending a “comprehensive review,” Smith told the Air Force Times.

That decision was made after a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) instructor, who read Truthout’s report, sent the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a civil rights organization, copies of ROTC leadership training materials, which also contained Christian-themed citations from the Bible. The PowerPoint slides in that presentation the unnamed instructor sent MRFF are used in all colleges and universities that have an ROTC program.

While Schwartz does not state what prompted him to issue the memorandum, it would appear the media attention surrounding the revelations about the ROTC leadership training and the “Jesus loves nukes” ethics course, which is how one former nuclear missile officer who took the course referred to it during an interview with Truthout, played a significant part.

Schwartz said commanders and supervisors, “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 objectify,” Schwartz added. “The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order and discipline.”

Furthermore, he advised Air Force leadership who may have concerns “involving the preservation of government neutrality regarding religious beliefs” to speak with a chaplain and staff judge advocate “before you act.”

Mikey Weinstein, MRFF’s president and founder, referred to Schwartz’s memorandum as 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.” (Full disclosure: Weinstein is a member of Truthout’s Board of Advisers.)

Weinstein had provided Truthout with copies of the PowerPoint presentation used during the nuclear ethics training taught by chaplains at Vandenberg Air Force base in California, which were obtained by an Air Force officer under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and turned over to MRFF.

Weinsten said Schwartz is 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,” Weinstein said in an email. “Gen. Schwartz has the Air Force at least now ‘talking the talk.’ Whether the Air Force 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.” (Weinstein’s emphasis.)

Systemic Issues

That Schwartz, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was forced to issue such an edict underscores how widespread the problems have been within the Air Force related to commanders endorsing religion, particularly fundamentalist Christianity.

Indeed, some examples over the past few years include an email circulated in 2009 by military command and staff officers to all personnel stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada inviting them to attend a Bible study class in which the topic of discussion referred to Jews as “whiners.”

Air Force Capt. Melissa Danley, the military personnel chief at Creech, sent the initial announcement from her official government email account at the request of a chaplain. The 432nd Wing Commander’s Office sent out another announcement soon after.

In December 2008, Chris Rodda, MRFF’s director of research, reported that a presentation titled “Purpose Driven Airmen,” which incorporated the teachings of megachurch leader Rick Warren and creationism as a means of suicide prevention, was sent by commanders from an official government email account to 5,000 servicemen and women stationed at RAF Lakenheath, the largest US Air Force base in England.

In January 2009, senior command officers again used a government email account to send an announcement, at the request of a chaplain, to base personnel asking them to attend a screening of the Christian movie “Fireproof.”

When commanders use their official government email accounts to send out such announcements, it implies that the events are officially endorsed by the United States Air Force.

No one was held accountable in either of those cases and Schwartz doesn’t say whether Air Force commanders and supervisors who violate the policy would be punished or held accountable.

Schwartz does, however, state that while commanders are responsible for certain Chaplain Corps programs, “including activities such as religious studies, faith sharing and prayer meetings … 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,” he wrote.

Chaplain’s Column Scrubbed

But, like the nuclear ethics training course taught by chaplains, there are other instances in which chaplains appear to be speaking on behalf of the Air Force, even unintentionally. For example, last month, some Air Force officers complained to Truthout and MRFF about a column they read written by a chaplain, Lt. Col. Curtiss Wagner of the 179 Airlift Wing, that was posted on the command’s official web site.

The August 16 column, “The Dignified Transfer,” centered around Wagner’s six-month deployment to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base. A portion of Wagner’s column discussed the pain he saw in the eyes of family members who went to Dover to witness the return of their loved ones’ remains. Wagner wrote that during his “deployment to mortuary affairs he was reminded … just how important faith and a spiritual foundation is.”

“It was very apparent who had a strong faith and who didn’t.” Wagner wrote. “Of course those who had a strong spiritual foundation still grieved at their loss, but they had hope and strength through that difficult time because of their relationship to God. I am reminded what the Apostle Paul stated in 1 Thess. 4:13 when he said that those who are Christ followers do not ‘grieve like the rest of men,’ who have no hope.”

Several Air Force officers who contacted Truthout said they were deeply offended by the Biblical passage, “those who are Christ followers do not ‘grieve like the rest of men,’” because it suggests family members of other faiths who do not worship Christ, as well as nonbelievers, “have no hope” and unless you accept Christ you grieve differently. Moreover, because it was published on an official government web site, it led them to believe that the Air Force endorsed Wagner’s position.

Truthout contacted Holli Snyder, a spokeswoman for the Air Force’s 179th Airlift Wing based out of Fort Campbell Kentucky, about whether Wagner’s use of the Biblical passage in a column published on a government web site amounted to a policy violation. Snyder responded a week later and said Wagner column was “removed” from the170th Airlift Wing’s web site “upon realization that his comments could be perceived as offensive and hurtful.”

A link to the column, now goes to a page not found. Wagner’s column was also removed from Google’s cache and can no longer be found on the web.

“Our most sincere apologies go out to any of those individuals who were offended by this commentary and will [sic] ensure in the future that statements published on our website could not be perceived as such,” Snyder said. “With that being said, one must take into consideration that Lt. Col. Wagner was writing a commentary, a personal narrative, meaning it was his own thoughts and beliefs, on his tour of duty at Dover Air Force Base. Wagner was not expressing the thoughts and beliefs of the 179th Airlift Wing, the U.S. Air Force, or the Department of Defense, but I can see how that could have been misconstrued by being posted on the official base website for the 179th AW. There should have been a statement attached with his commentary that stated the following:

The views expressed in this commentary are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, the Air Force, the 179th Airlift Wing or Airmen assigned to the 179th AW.

Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, goes on to say in his memo that chaplains are “trained to provide leadership on matters related to the free exercise of religion and to help commanders care for all of their people, regardless of their beliefs.”

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