Military Religious Freedom Foundation

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The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) is a watchdog / advocacy group and civil rights organization whose stated goals are to ensure that members of the United States Armed Forces receive the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom to which they are entitled by virtue of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.[1]

Background[edit]

The organization was founded by Michael Weinstein in 2005 for the purpose of opposing the spread of alleged religious intimidation by evangelical Christians in positions of power within the US military.[2] Weinstein experienced discrimination due to his Jewish faith while a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy. After his sons experienced discrimination as well while at the Academy, Weinstein founded the MRFF in 2005.[3] On November 1, 2013, for the fifth consecutive year, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation was officially nominated again for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize (its sixth total nomination).[4]

Weinstein describes the group's target as "a small subset of evangelical Christianity that's called premilliennial, dispensational, reconstructionist, dominionist, fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity or just Dominionist Christianity."[5] He further characterized their target as ""incredibly well-funded gangs of fundamentalist Christian monsters who terrorize their fellow Americans by forcing their weaponized and twisted version of Christianity upon their helpless subordinates in our nation's armed forces." [5] The group is asking the United States Congress to hold oversight hearings regarding what it alleges is the Defense Department's failure to abide by the Constitutionally mandated separation of Church and State.[6]

From its inception, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has advocated for and assisted thousands of active duty U.S. servicemen/women and veterans who have contacted the MRFF[7] regarding alleged religious discrimination, harassment and aggressive proselytizing by Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians. The MRFF reports that more than 90% of the servicemen/women and veterans who contact the MRFF with complaints are Christians.[8]

On September 11, 2012, advisory board member Glen Doherty died in the U.S. Consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya.[9] MRFF founder Michael L. Weinstein said that Doherty had "helped me on many MRFF client cases behind the scenes to facilitate assistance to armed forces members abused horribly by fundamentalist Christian proselytizing."[10]

Mission statement[edit]

According to its website, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation's mission is to ensure that:

  • No religion or religious philosophy may be advanced by the United States Armed Forces over any other religion or religious philosophy.
  • No member of the United States Armed Forces may be compelled in any way to conform to a particular religion or religious philosophy.
  • No member of the United States Armed Forces may be compelled in any way to witness or engage in any religious exercise.
  • No member of the military may be compelled to curtail – except in the most limited of military circumstances and when it directly impacts military discipline, morale and the successful completion of a specific military goal – the free exercise of their religious practices or beliefs.
  • Students at United States military academies are entitled to the same Constitutional rights pertaining to religious freedoms and the free exercise of those freedoms to which all other members of the United States Armed Forces military are entitled.
  • No member of the military may be compelled to endure unwanted religious proselytization, evangelization or persuasion of any sort in a military setting and/or by a military superior or civilian employee of the military.
  • The full exercise of religious freedom includes the right not to subscribe to any particular religion or religious philosophy. The so-called “unchurched” cede no Constitutional rights by want of their separation from organized faith.
  • It is the responsibility of the military hierarchy to ensure that the free exercise of religious freedoms of all enlisted personnel are respected and served.
  • All military personnel have the right to employ appropriate judicial means to protect their religious rights.[11]

Notable cases[edit]

MRFF has filed multiple federal lawsuits against the Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense, with military members as co-plaintiffs, asserting a pattern and practice of constitutionally impermissible promotions of religion by the military. Additionally, MRFF president and founder Mikey Weinstein has spoken to students at a number of the U.S. military's educational institutions: The U.S. Air Force Academy's National Character and Leadership Symposium, the Air Force JAG School, the Air Command and Staff College, and the US Army War College.

Notable among those who have been represented by the MRFF is Jewish veteran Akiva David Miller,[12][13] who alleged that he suffered religious discrimination and aggressive Christian proselyzation while receiving care at the Iowa City V.A. Medical Center beginning in 2005.

2006 saw the exposure by the MRFF of a promotional video by Christian Embassy (an offshoot of the evangelical Campus Crusade for Christ) which was filmed in the Pentagon and featured uniformed Generals. Following a MRFF-requested [14] internal investigation carried out by the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General, the report on "Alleged Misconduct by DoD Officials Concerning Christian Embassy"[15] concluded that several violations of Defense Department policy were committed during the production of the promotional video. Chiefly among the violations was the obtaining of permission to film the video at the Pentagon by means of a willful "[mischaracterization] of the purpose and proponent of the video" by Chaplain (Colonel) Ralph G. Benson, as well as the acts of officers who used their name, rank, and uniforms as a means towards endorsing the Christian Embassy proselytizing message.[16][17]

In September 2008, the California Council of Churches IMPACT (CCCI), a public policy advocacy organization which represents numerous and diverse mainstream Christian and Orthodox Christian communities, formally announced its endorsement of the MRFF's mission, with CCCI Board President Rev. John Freeseman stating "Our alignment with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is on behalf of religious freedom for all people, regardless of belief or non-belief. It is not the function of the U.S. Military to proselytize our troops but to protect our constitutional freedoms." [18]

Army Specialist Jeremy Hall is in litigation against the Department of Defense, alleging that as a self-proclaimed atheist he has suffered discrimination, harassment, and threats of violence from both his superiors and fellow soldiers while on active duty in Iraq. He was subsequently transferred by the U.S. Army back to the United States for his own safety.[19] On October 10, 2008, Specialist Jeremy Hall and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed a Notice of Voluntary Dismissal.[20]

In February 2009, Colonel Kimberly Toney, commander of the USAF's 501st Combat Support Wing sent an email with a link to a religious-themed web video about the life story of Nick Vujicic. The sponsoring site of the video, 4marks.com, is a Catholic website. USAF service members who looked at the site after following the emailed link complained that the site contained criticism of President Barack Obama. Weinstein said that the incident represented a textbook case of improper religious influence and added, "There’s a pervasive pattern of constitutional abuse when you have a wing commander who sends out a direct, proselytizing e-mail with a link to a Web site that slanders the president of the United States."[21]

Following the Fort Hood shooting in November 2009, the Religious right American Family Association issued the statement "No More Muslims in the US Military", which explicitly stated that Muslim military enlistees be barred from military service in the United States armed forces on the grounds that "...just as Christians are taught to imitate the life of Christ, so Muslims are taught to imitate the Prophet in all things. Yesterday, Nidal Malik Hasan was simply being a good Muslim." [22] MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein 's denunciation of the AFA position as "bigoted, racist, [and] vile" was featured prominently by Hatewatch, the official blog of the Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights organization.[23]

The MRFF Senior Research Director Chris Rodda was invited to contribute an essay on religious expression in the military to the discursive volume "Attitudes Aren't Free: Thinking Deeply About Diversity in the US Armed Forces" published by Air University Press, the publishing arm of the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base.[24]

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation initiated the January 2010 media coverage of the Jesus rifles controversy, when rifle scopes manufactured by US government contractor Trijicon were discovered to be engraved with scripture citations. Following the breaking of this story by ABC News, the outrage provoked by this discovery was voiced by a diverse range of religious and political constituencies and within a week of the ABC News report, Trijicon announced that it would halt the engraving of the biblical inscriptions on all products sold to the government.[25][26]

In April 2010, the Foundation successfully demanded the cancellation of evangelical preacher Franklin Graham’s scheduled participation in the Pentagon’s National Day of Prayer event, thereby severing the affiliation between the Pentagon event and Shirley Dobson's (wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson) exclusively evangelical conservative Christian National Day of Prayer Task Force, and making this event inclusive of all religions.

The MRFF's leading role in the application of pressure on United States Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt Gen Michael C. Gould throughout 2010 [27] resulted in the release of the bi-annual Academy Climate Survey's results. The survey revealed that 41% of non-Christian cadets and 19% of all cadets were subjected to unwanted proselytizing.[28]

In January 2011, the MRFF demanded that the US Army cease and desist their policy of administering a “spiritual fitness” component to the mandatory Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program test, whereby soldiers’ combat-readiness and ability are judged on the basis of their religiosity. MRFF also utilized the media to bring criticism to bear on the fact that evangelical Christian rock concerts were being organized and funded under the auspices of the Spiritual Fitness program.[29]

Military Religious Freedom Foundation litigation sparked by a prayer luncheon hosted by the US Air Force Academy's chaplain service (which featured retired Marine Corps Lt. and fundamentalist Christian Clebe McClary as keynote speaker) was reviewed by a federal judge on February 2011. U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello's ruling stated that the plaintiffs (which included both the Foundation and USAFA professor David Mullin) lacked sufficient legal standing to challenge the event.[30]

A significant MRFF victory [31] arrived in 2011 when the US Air Force, in response to the pressure caused by the release of internal training material via a Freedom of Information Act request, revised the ethical indocrination course material to which nuclear missile launch officers were exposed as a standard component of their training. The course has been defended by a spokesman for the Air Force's Air Training and Education Command as a means towards "[helping] folks understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. In the missile launch industry, it takes a certain mindset to be able to walk in the door and say, yes, I can do that” [31] Included in the a course is the PowerPoint presentation Who Are You When No One Is Looking: Five Ethical Principles For Service To The Air Force, a presentation which reveals a Christian militarist perspective and which heavily quotes Judeo-Christian scripture and contains a synopsis of the Just War Theory of St. Augustine of Hippo. Controversially, the PowerPoint also contains a slide excerpting the words of former Nazi Party member, SS Sturmbannführer, aerospace engineer and rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, who is quoted as stating that "We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon (the ballistic missile) to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world best be secured." in reference to his 1945 surrender to American occupation forces and subsequent recruitment by the United States Office of Strategic Services via Operation Paperclip.[32] MRFF client and missile officer training attendee Damon Bosetti recounted to the media that he and his Air Force colleagues would refer to the religious portion of the ethics training course as the "Jesus loves nukes speech".[31] In September 2011, Senator John Cornyn encouraged the Air Force to resume the class.[33]

Another recent success was on May 24, 2012. After MRFF threatened suit over the "Crusaders" name and Cross and Shield logo for the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron VMFA-122, the Marine Deputy Commandant for Aviation directed VMFA-122 to revert the unit's identification back to the previous name and logo "Werewolves."[34]

In December 2012, MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein was named one of the "100 Most Influential People in U.S. Defense" by Defense News.[35] As one individual on the list explained, inclusion on the list is a matter of "…making change, it’s not just celebrity." Ranked at #95, Weinstein even managed to outrank General David Petraeus. Defense News noted:

A former Air Force officer and White House lawyer during the Reagan administration, Weinstein is today a one-issue whistle-blower who has driven real change in religious policy throughout the military. Advocating for secularism in the military through the Military Religious Freedom Foundation he founded in 2005, Weinstein has fought a campaign against public prayer and proselytizing by Air Force officers, particularly at the Air Force Academy, his alma mater, where he says he and his sons experienced religious discrimination. Weinstein has been accused of tilting at windmills in his struggles, but he scored a major victory in 2011, when the Air Force suspended a training course for nuclear missile launch officers that used Bible passages and religious imagery in a PowerPoint presentation about the ethics of war. Weinstein's public persistence continues to influence Pentagon religious policies, including new rules released in 2012 restricting the sale of Bibles adorned with military insignia.

Criticism[edit]

Mikey Weinstein, founder and CEO of MRFF, recently came under criticism for his larger than average (for a non-profit) salary and his practice of voting on his own compensation (he is one of the voting members of MRFF’s 3 member board).[36]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Military Religious Freedom Foundation - Our Mission
  2. ^ Alex Kopperman (December 13, 2006). "These people should be court-martialed". salon.com. Retrieved 2008-02-14. 
  3. ^ Nomination letter for 2012 Nobel Peace Prize
  4. ^ MRFF Nominated for 2014 Nobel Peace Prize
  5. ^ a b "With God on Our Side" Talk given July 10, 2007 at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. First aired on C-SPAN August 11, 2007. Accessed on Aug. 19, 2007
  6. ^ Richard Lardner (August 6, 2007). "Officers' Role in Christian Video Probed". Associated Press. Retrieved 2008-02-14. [dead link]
  7. ^ Atheist soldier sues Army for 'unconstitutional' discrimination
  8. ^ MRFF's Inbox, November 2, 2008
  9. ^ Ellement, John R. (13 September 2012). "Winchester native among victims of Libya attack". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 13 September 2012. 
  10. ^ Stone, Andrea (13 September 2012). "Glen Doherty, Security Officer Killed In Libya Attack, Fought Religious Proselytizing In Military". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 13 September 2012. 
  11. ^ http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org/about/our-mission/
  12. ^ "Orthodox US Jewish Navy Veteran: Chaplains repeatedly tried to convert me" Published on israelenews.com on 28 May 2008. Accessed on 28 May 2008
  13. ^ "Jewish vet tells of repeated proselytizing by VA hospital chaplains" Recorded interview by Haim Dov Beliak. First published on jewsonfirst.org May 15, 2007. Accessed on May 24, 2008.
  14. ^ Inquiry Sought Over Evangelical Video by Alan Cooperman, Washington Post
  15. ^ http://www.dodig.osd.mil/fo/Foia/ERR/Xtian_Embassy_072707.pdf
  16. ^ Washington Post Editorial (August 13, 2007)Pulling Rank on Religion
  17. ^ Not so fast, Christian soldiers Retrieved July 25, 2011
  18. ^ MRFF Press Release (September 5, 2008) California Christian Organization Endorses Military Religious Freedom Foundation Retrieved July 25, 2011.
  19. ^ Robyn Blumner (May 4, 2008). "This Atheist Finds he Needs a Foxhole". St. Petersburgs Times. Retrieved 2008-11-22. 
  20. ^ Notice of Voluntary Dismissal
  21. ^ Lichtblau, Eric, "Air Force Looks Into ‘Inspirational’ Video", New York Times, March 15, 2009, p. 27.
  22. ^ American Family Association blog No More Muslims in the U.S. Military
  23. ^ SPLC Hatewatch (November 12, 2009) Violate the Constitution? Christian Right Group Says Yes Retrieved July 25, 2011.
  24. ^ Parco, J.E., and Levy, D.A, Eds. (2010) Attitudes Aren't Free: Thinking Deeply About Diversity in the US Armed Forces
  25. ^ BBC News (January 22, 2011) US firm to remove Biblical references on gunsights Retrieved July 25, 2011.
  26. ^ Eckholm, Erik, "Firm to Remove Bible References From Gun Sights, "New York Times", January 21, 2010
  27. ^ Colorado Springs Independent (September 17, 2011) Weinstein: 'A state of war' with AFA Retrieved July 25, 2011
  28. ^ Elliot, Dan, "41% Of Non-Christian AF Cadets Cite Proselytizing", Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 29, 2010.
  29. ^ RT America, January 1, 2011 Thou Shall Not Rock-n-Roll? Retrieved July 25, 2011.
  30. ^ The Denver Post, February 2, 2011 Judge rejects bid to stop Air Force Academy prayer luncheon Retrieved July 25, 2011.
  31. ^ a b c The Washington Post, August 2, 2011 Air Force suspends ethics course that used Bible passages to train missile launch officers Retrieved August 2, 2011.
  32. ^ Leopold, Jason. Truth-out.org July 27, 2011 http://www.truth-out.org/air-force-cites-new-testament-ex-nazi-train-officers-ethics-launching-nuclear-weapons/1311776738 Retrieved August 2, 2011.
  33. ^ Starnes, Todd, "Suspension of Air Force Class Over Bible Passages 'Misrepresents First Amendment'" [1]
  34. ^ Huus, Kari (May 24, 2012). "Marine Werewolves transform into Crusaders, and back again". MSNBC. Retrieved 2012-05-25. 
  35. ^ http://special.defensenews.com/people/profile.php?pn=95
  36. ^ Losey, Stephen. "Exclusive: Nonprofit CEO cashes in on religious freedom campaign". militarytimes.com. militarytimes.com. Retrieved 2014-03-07. 

External links[edit]