Update at the end of this report.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a watchdog group that aims to ensure that members of the US Armed Forces receive their right to religious freedom, has spoken out against the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) Religious Respect Conference, stating that organizers purposely excluded the organization from attending because of its visible efforts in combating religious intolerance in the military.
Created in 2006 by president and founder Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, a USAFA graduate himself, the MRFF has received two Nobel Peace Prize nominations and is credited with exposing widespread proselytizing of military personnel by fundamentalist Christians. The MRFF has more than 20,000 active clients; 96 percent of those who have contacted the MRFF for help are Christians, with the other four percent encompassing Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and agnostics. About 172 of MRFF’s clients are USAFA cadets, officers and staff members.
“We’re the only organization representing people of all religion and no religion,” said Chris Rodda, MRFF senior research director. “Twenty thousand service members have contacted us. [The USAFA] is ignoring the one organization that does what we do.”
Lt. Col. John Bryan, USAFA director of public affairs, said that the conference hopes to clarify the parameters of the First Amendment and define terms such as “proselytizing.” Eventually, Bryan said, USAFA is “looking for a religious respect training program. That’s the ability to freely exercise religion or not and the training that goes along with that, working in that message with respect.”
Attendees of the conference include Interfaith Alliance President Rev. Welton Gaddy, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers President Jason Torpy and Jewish Chaplains Council Deputy Director Rabbi Barry R. Baron.
Also attending is Rev. Dr. Billy Baugham, executive director of the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplains Endorsers. Rodda detailed some of Baugham’s most controversial statements in an article published April 13; in a documentary titled “Chaplains Under Fire,” Baugham stated that he would encourage all dying soldiers to accept Jesus Christ as their savior, even if they initially refused – a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The USAFA has “invited several people who are part of the problem,” Rodda said. “Billy Baugham’s view is that the chaplains should violate regulations.”
Weinstein called this week’s conference “nothing more than propaganda.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone else who’s invited who has a single client who’s being persecuted. We represent 172 victims of religious oppression at the Academy … there’s no instance in [military] history of someone being punished for religious intolerance.”
On November 10, after pressure from the MRFF and other watchdog groups, USAFA released the results of a 2010 Climate Survey that demonstrated an increased percentage of cadets who believe that some religious and racial minorities face discrimination. The Colorado Springs Gazette reported that almost half of non-Christian cadets surveyed felt that other students had a “low tolerance” for nonbelievers, an increase of 20 percent since 2007.
USAFA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould initially kept the results private, but the MRFF filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the data. Approximately 47 percent of total USAFA cadets responded to the survey.
Bryan said that the conference is unrelated to the survey and has been in the works for months. “This was a chance to bring together a lot of major religious groups – and non-religious.” The chaplains who organized the conference “found the groups who would be most constructive,” Bryan said and did not include the MRFF because “they are not involved in the process.”
USAFA cadets or staff members who are subjected to unwanted proselytizing or feel religious pressure have the option of complaining to the inspector general, the Military Equal Opportunity Office or a chaplain. “It’s more than just accommodation, it’s about respect,” Bryan said.
But many of MRFF’s clients have reported fearing for their safety because of their religion or sexual orientation.
In an email to the MRFF that was published by Veterans Today, an anonymous cadet wrote that “USAFA is literally overrun with Christian conservative fanatics. And the leadership here either knows this or is ridiculously blind to it. If any of us gave even the slightest indication that we weren’t one of their number, our lives would be even more miserable than they already are due to the fact that we are all living lies here.”
Among the current MRFF clients is a USAFA faculty member who has also remained anonymous for his safety. The conference is a “travesty,” he said. “I’m very disappointed that they would, at this time, not invite [the MRFF] … Why is it that a big supporter of religious freedom in the military is not here?”
The faculty member said he has experienced religious oppression during his time at USAFA, being subject to “commander-directed prayers before mandatory dining functions or mandatory military functions” such as briefings. The conference is “promoting respect, but I don’t think they’ll be discussing removal of religious influences from the military,” he said. The MRFF are “the ones who get feedback from us. These people who are scared to speak to their leadership, they’re not going to be the ones going to this respect conference. That’s who they don’t trust in the first place.”
Had the MRFF been invited, Weinstein said, his first agenda item would be to challenge the Department of Defense to point out an incident in which the military punished a member of the armed forces for proselytizing in the same manner that sexual harassment, drug use and disrespect of superior officers is punished. “I defy the Air Force and for that matter … the navy and the marine corps and the army, to show me one time that someone has ever been disciplined … for religious oppression,” Weinstein said.
The MRFF also pointed out that the list of attendees does not include Muslim groups. “Why is there not a single representative from the Islamic faith at this religious respect conference?” Weinstein asked. “This is not a Christian-Jewish problem. It’s a constitutional right and wrong issue. They’re called civil rights, not civil privileges.”
Bryan said that representatives from Muslim organizations were invited to the conference, but did not attend. He did not know which groups had been invited.
(Full disclosure: Mikey Weinstein is a member of Truthout’s board of advisers.)
UPDATE: The family of USAFA graduate Lauren Baas sent a letter on November 20 to Cadets for Christ founders Don and Anna Warrick and USAFA superintendent Mike Gould, criticizing both organizations for their parts in the unsolicited proselytizing of Lauren and other USAFA students. MRFF senior research director Chris Rodda published the letter on Huffington Post – along with Gould’s email address.
Lt. Col. Bryan said that USAFA did not receive the original letter from the Baas family and he has only seen it in republication.
“Not one of the 172 [USAFA] clients has come forward in any manner,” Bryan said, despite the fact that they are always guaranteed anonymity if they feel threatened. “You can’t chase ghosts. So what are we to do, when we have these allegations of 172 names and we’ve never seen them?”
As a federal employee, Bryan said, Gould is a public figure. His email address may be easy to find, but “when it’s embedded in the article, that’s the problem.”
USAFA director of public affairs Lt. Col. John Bryan emailed Rodda shortly after with a request to remove the address “as a professional courtesy,” which MRFF president Mikey Weinstein called “irony as third rate theater.”
“The only professional courtesy [USAFA] should be worried about is whether they actually have even a second grader’s understanding of the US Constitution,” Weinstein said. “That email belongs to the American people.” Members of the USAFA “swore an oath to preserve, protect, and serve the Constitution.” MRFF’s response to the request, Weinstein said, is to insist USAFA “stop lying to the American people about the separation of church and state at the Air Force Academy. That’s not a request, that’s a demand.”