By Seth Richardson
Gadfly Mikey Weinstein loves to stir the pot when it comes to religion and the U.S. military, and he’s carved out a pretty plush living in the process, so it’s really no surprise that he manufactures controversy whenever he’s able. After all, his salary depends on convincing intolerant bigots to send him money.
His Military Religious Freedom Foundation says it is “dedicated to ensuring that all members of the United States Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom to which they and all Americans are entitled by virtue of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
Sounds reasonable enough, but like most platitudes, the devil’s in the details. While Weinstein does some good things, he knowingly and deliberately elides the Free Exercise Clause, which is the actual guarantee of religious freedom, and is what the Establishment Clause is intended to protect. Protections against the government establishing a state religion are meaningless without the superior right to freely practice one’s own religion.
Surely Weinstein knows this, which begs the question of why his organization isn’t also dedicated to protecting the rights of service members under the Free Exercise Clause. By focusing exclusively on the Establishment Clause, it appears that his purpose is not to support religious freedom in the military. Rather, based on his rhetoric it looks like he wants to extirpate free exercise of religion, or at least all “evangelical Christian” religious expression by service members.
His “Military Religious Freedom Foundation” seems more like a “Military Evangelical Christian Religious Suppression Foundation” or perhaps a “Military Freedom From Religion Foundation.”
By interfering with the free exercise of religion by service members, Weinstein turns from constitutional crusader to intolerant anti-religious zealot, in defiance of the core principles and values of the Constitution he purports to uphold.
Here’s a legal note for Weinstein: The Supreme Court says that atheistic irreligion is not “common ground” in this country. The United States is a nation of mandatory religious plurality, where all have an express right to worship freely, and none may be compelled to do so. Tolerance of peaceable expression of religion by all is the law of the land, and that includes the military.
The most recent example of Weinstein’s interference is the MRFF’s objections to the invitation extended to war-hero and motivational speaker Marine Corps Lieutenant Clebe McClary. Along with representatives of several other faiths, including Jews, Buddhists and Catholics, McClary is scheduled to speak at the 2011 National Prayer Luncheon at the Air Force Academy on February 10th.
Weinstein, in a letter to Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen Michael C. Gould, complained that McClary’s “non-inclusive religious ‘message’ of fundamentalist Christian triumphalism, exceptionalism and supremacy which is the gravamen of the truly disgraceful decision by the Academy to honor him as the featured speaker at its National Prayer Luncheon event” is too offensive to be permitted. Then Weinstein “demanded” that the invitation be rescinded.
When General Gould refused to do so, Weinstein began calling for Gould to be removed as Superintendent. Gazette reporter Tom Roeder wrote, “‘We’re done,’ said academy graduate Mikey Weinstein, the foundation’s founder and a frequent foe of religious practices at the school. ‘Gould needs to go.’”
McClary, a many-times decorated, and gravely-wounded hero of the Vietnam War, is a highly sought-after military motivational speaker. But the MRFF has demanded that his invitation be rescinded because Weinstein and his cohorts have decided that McClary is certain to propound a “divisive and highly sectarian fundamentalist Christian message” that offends their sensibilities and that, according to a long list of pundits assembled by Weinstein, offends the Constitution as well.
As I will demonstrate presently, this is utter nonsense and a travesty of constitutional and legal mendacity and misinterpretation.
The first and most obvious rebuttal to Weinstein’s complaint that McClary must not be allowed to speak is that McClary hasn’t given a speech at the Academy yet, and nobody knows what McClary is going to say. He might talk about adopting stray puppies and kitties as a form of motivation and stress relief for all anyone can be certain of.
The MRFF and other objectors are basing their objections on their biased judgment of what McClary is alleged to have said in the past, which they then suggest will inevitably be repeated in the future. There’s a name for this failure in reasoning and logic: it’s called the “slippery slope” fallacy. But Weinstein’s demands are nothing more or less than an exercise in prejudiced, intolerant prior-restraint censorship and a fallacious appeal to emotion and guilt-by-association.
If anything is offensive to the Constitution, it’s Weinstein et al declaring someone persona non grata before the fact because of what some pundits think they might say. It’s customary in this nation to wait till after someone violates the law to demand their head on a pike.
Another note for Weinstein et al: That’s called “due process of law,” and it’s found in the Bill of Rights.
If McClary does violate federal law or the Constitution, then Weinstein is free to file a lawsuit in federal court. But neither he, nor the Superintendent, can suppress McClary’s (or anyone else’s) right to free speech or his right to freedom of religion before the fact.
The other, and perhaps most important rebuttal to the MRFF’s objections is that contrary to their assertions, the event is not an official United States Air Force military function or meeting, and it is neither sponsored nor funded by the U.S. government, so it’s not, as they claim, “government sponsored religious speech.”
It is, in fact, an off-duty, private religious function, funded by the attendees and through voluntary donations, and attendance is not compulsory for anyone. Those facts alone are enough to justify telling Weinstein and his ilk to pound sand. But their mendacity and mischaracterization just go on and on.
Chris Rodda, MRFF Senior Research Director, a virulent opponent of what she characterizes as “Christian nationalist revisionism” arrogantly and rudely dismissed a very reasonable and polite response letter sent out by David K. Cannon, the Academy’s Director of Communication. In her “OpEd News” rebuttal, she called Cannon’s responses to the FFRF’s objections “strawmen,” which indicates a lack of understanding of the term, and the entire tone of her rebuttal was rude, arrogant, disrespectful and abrasive.
In response to Cannon’s statement that “invites were only sent to permanent party members and staff (not cadets)” Rodda writes, “Do permanent party and staff members at the Academy have any less rights regarding religious coercion than cadets?”
Here Rodda erects a genuine strawman of her own, and festoons it with red herrings to boot. No, permanent party and staff members do not have less rights regarding religious coercion than cadets, but that’s irrelevant because insofar as this prayer luncheon is concerned, there is no “religious coercion” occurring. Cannon makes it clear that, “There is absolutely no pressure for anyone to attend.”
Rodda’s rebuttal to this statement is an example not of herrings and straw, but of the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. In this fallacy, Cannon states explicitly that there is no coercion involved and attendance is not required. In response, Rodda trots out anonymous and therefore dubious letters and emails she purports are from a staff members at the Academy in a vain attempt to show that Cannon’s statement is inconsistent with past actions by the Superintendent, and that therefore Cannon is lying now. Problem is, none of the “evidence” she presents objectively proves that there is any coercion involved. It’s all baseless and unsupported fear, conjecture and speculation, even if true.
The fallacy lies in the fact that even if Cannon’s statements today are inconsistent with factual historical events (though neither Weinstein nor Rodda provide any objective evidence of this), it does not follow that his statements are false on this occasion.
Rodda’s alleged testimony from officers at the Academy may or may not be true, but they are certainly red herring fallacies. They could easily be fabricated, and Weinstein certainly has an economic motive to do so, which is not to say that he did. But because they are anonymous, and therefore unverifiable, they don’t pass the smell test (or a court test, which Weinstein ought to know, since he’s a lawyer) and it’s reasonable to reject them as unsubstantiated hearsay unless and until the true authors have the courage to step forward and own their words. That’s the sort of courage we should expect from our military officers.
But, let’s suppose hypothetically that the statement of the “Methodist officer” who is alleged to have written, “I’ve heard him speak before and I know what he says and what he does to his audience. It made me sick then and will again when he speaks on Feb. 10 at the Falcon Club here at USAFA” is factually true. What import does this hearsay “evidence” have upon the upcoming event?
Well, first of all, since neither this officer nor any other is compelled to attend the event, and neither Rodda nor Weinstein have provided any objective evidence that failing to do so will result in any adverse action by the individual’s superiors (which would be a violation of military law if it happened), any “sickness” he or she may feel is entirely of his or her own making and volition.
Note to the “Methodist officer:” Voluntary consent to participation destroys any legitimate complaint about the content of the meeting, period. If you don’t want to attend, act like a military officer and politely decline the invitation rather than cowering in fear behind Weinstein. Or get another, less demanding job.
On the other hand, if this officer can provide verifiable proof of adverse actions resulting from a refusal to attend, then Weinstein’s got a legitimate legal case and I encourage him to represent the officer pro bono. After all, the organization’s primary tax-exempt purpose is “to provide legal representation to defend the constitutional right of religious freedom…”
Note to Weinstein: In my opinion, taking just less than half of the Foundation’s donations as your personal salary doesn’t exactly make you a selfless moral crusader. Don’t get me wrong, you’re demonstrating the entrepreneurial spirit that made this country great, and if your donors don’t mind, why should you? As the great P.T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
For the record, according to the Foundation’s IRS tax exemption return, in 2008 (the only year I could find), out of $545,434 in donations, Weinstein took $252,485 as salary, while none of the other officers of the foundation took a dime.
But I digress…
Religious service members attending a private religious luncheon event are not required by any law or constitutional principle to conform their religious practices to allay the irrational fears of those who need not attend and face no adverse consequences if they don’t, Weinstein and Rodda’s unsupported allegations to the contrary notwithstanding.
Neither the free speech of McClary, nor the religious freedom of those who voluntarily choose to attend the event are, or can lawfully be subject to gadfly-initiated government-sponsored prior-restraint censorship. That particular principle of law the Supreme Court is quite firm on.
Those persons have religious freedom and free speech rights too, and that includes the right to attend a private, off-duty event paid for out of their own pockets to hear a motivational speaker of their choosing and engage in religious congregation, even if that congregation includes hearing or speaking what some gadfly calls “divisive and highly sectarian fundamentalist Christian message(s).” One man’s “divisive and highly sectarian fundamentalist Christian message” is another man’s religious affirmation and inspirational message.
Nobody appointed, and nobody can appoint Mikey Weinstein, Chris Rodda, or anybody else in the evangelical-bashing contingent as Arbiters of Religious Messages for the service members of the United States Air Force Academy, or anybody else, for that matter. That’s the law. Weinstein’s entitled to his own opinion, but he’s not entitled to his own legal facts.
In fact, the Constitution and the law expressly prohibits General Gould from doing what Weinstein has demanded, because that would constitute both illegal prior restraint of free speech and infringement of religious liberty against both McClary and those who have paid to attend the event to hear him speak. Neither General Gould, in his official capacity as Superintendent, nor anyone else in the military or the federal government has any power to engage in content-based censorship of a speaker at a non-governmental, private event like this luncheon.
Even if the event was intentionally and overtly evangelical Christian in nature, no laws or military regulations would be violated, because evangelical Christian service members have a constitutional right to meet, worship and evangelize outside the scope of their official duties, and the Air Force Academy has a legal duty to accommodate them.
In an April, 2010 Congressional Research Service report, Legislative Attorneys R. Chuck Mason and Cynthia Brougher outlined the duty and obligation of the military to accommodate religion:
“The Supreme Court has considered a long line of cases involving issues that arise where these two clauses intersect, often referred to as permissive accommodation of religion.
…These situations often arise in the context of religious expression in schools, which is the subject of many of the cases that illustrate the requirements of accommodation.
…the military and schools both have unique characteristics that distinguish them from accommodations offered to society at large.
…the framework of analysis depends on the unique needs of the particular context in which the issue arises.
…In the military context, this means that the Supreme Court has recognized that military decisions are entitled to a higher level of deference so that the military may maintain order and discipline within its ranks.”
The report cites the various Supreme Court cases and the Acts of Congress, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, that actually determine the law that controls this subject, something Weinstein does not do.
Nor has the Department of Defense (DOD) ignored this sensitive issue. The report summarizes DOD regulations in saying,
“[The] “U.S. Constitution proscribes Congress from enacting any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion” and indicates that the DOD “places a high value on the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions.” Therefore, the established DOD policy is that “requests for accommodation of religious practices should be approved by commanders when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on mission accomplishment, military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline.”
The CRS report goes on to say,
“Overall, the Court appears generally to regard accommodations as constitutional if they balance the interests of the various parties involved in the controversy and do not benefit individuals with religious objections at the
expense of individuals who are not claiming religious objections. These rules reflect the line that the Court has drawn between permissible and unconstitutional accommodations: the government may only accommodate or facilitate, not favor or promote, religious exercise.”
Thus we see that the claims made by a list of Weinstein-lead objectors that the prayer luncheon and Lt. McClary’s participation is a “direct violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment” is specious nonsense, and that in point of fact, the Air Force Academy has a duty to reasonably accommodate such religious assemblies, which is precisely what it’s doing.
Rodda and Weinstein also accuse General Gould of supporting only one brand of evangelical Christianity. But in fact, the luncheon includes presentations by members of several other faiths. In his letter to the MRFF, Cannon writes,
“This year’s program is very inclusive of many different beliefs. There will be readings by an Islamic Airman, a Jewish Airman, an African-American Christian Airman, a Jewish chaplain (rabbi), a Buddhist sensei (sic) and a Catholic chaplain (priest). By design, this expresses some of the rich religious diversity that makes up America’s Air Force and your United States Air Force Academy.
We asked Lt McClary to speak because he is a highly-decorated Vietnam combat veteran (Silver Star and Bronze Star) and nationally recognized motivational speaker. He presents a tremendously inspirational message as he describes the loss of an eye and arm in combat, and how he overcame tough odds to succeed in his endeavors. His message is one of facing challenges and overcoming adversity and he has the credibility to support that message.
USAFA’s luncheon is not funded by taxpayer dollars. Expenses are covered, in part, by the Chapel Tithes and Offerings Fund (to include Lt McClary’s lodging, travel expenses, or honorarium). Those wishing to attend pay $7 for their meals.”
Despite these assurances, Rodda insultingly dismisses this example of religious diversity by saying:
“Sure, you can say that the event is inclusive because you’ve got your token Muslim, Jew, and Buddhist to read a few words, but do you really think that anyone sees this as equal recognition of all religions when these non-Christian readings are followed by a speaker whose military prayer breakfast and luncheon speeches include statements like: “There are two kinds of fools in this world. A fool for Christ and a fool for others. What kind of fool are you?” Do you not think that McClary’s message will be taken by your Muslim, Jew, and Buddhist readers as being called “fools.”"
Aside from the “token Muslim, Jew and Buddhist” crack that demeans, insults and derides the contributions of those service members and their religious freedom, and can hardly be seen as protecting their rights, we should note the “slippery slope” and “poisoning the well” fallacies Rodda presents.
Rodda is mistaken in her logic where she asks the rhetorical question, “[D]o you really think that anyone sees this as equal recognition of all religions when these non-Christian readings are followed by a speaker whose military prayer breakfast and luncheon speeches include statements like: “There are two kinds of fools in this world. A fool for Christ and a fool for others. What kind of fool are you?”
This claim is an example of the “slippery slope” fallacy because Rodda falsely assumes a priori that McClary will say these things at this meeting merely because he is alleged to have said them elsewhere. This is also a form of the “poisoning the well” fallacy because her negative claims about McClary’s prior alleged statements are intended to impugn his future integrity. Weinstein has used this reprehensible tactic before, and will likely use it again. But that’s another article.
In addition, it’s also the fallacy of “begging the question” because she assumes, again a priori, that there is some obligation on the part of the participants at this private meeting to provide “equal recognition of all religions.” No such duty or obligation exists in this situation, although General Gould has taken steps to see that a reasonable cross-section of religious views are being represented at the meeting on his own initiative.
This inability to distinguish official acts in the performance of some military duty from private religious observances that happen to take place on a military reservation is the essence of the cognitive disconnect that Weinstein, Rodda and all the other gadflies who work with and support the MRFF, including celebrity gadfly and actor Mike Farrell, suffer from. And it’s where Weinstein and his cohorts go badly astray from their legitimate and useful function of being watchdogs against religious oppression in the military.
They all forget that even evangelical Christians in the military have a right to religious freedom, and they have the right to sponsor, pay for, and attend overtly religious “prayer luncheons” and other similar meetings on military bases worldwide.
The Supreme Court and the Congress have stated that the military has an affirmative duty to reasonably accommodate the religious needs of service members because of the unique conditions that apply to them. Because they are confined to their bases, and are often far from their homes and home congregations, their spiritual needs may, and indeed must be reasonably accommodated by their superior officers. Those officers are derelict in their duty, and they violate the religious rights of their subordinates if they do not do so.
And even the Superintendent of the Air Force Academy likewise enjoys the personal right to free expression of his religion, and he’s fully entitled to participate in religious observances, or sponsor them, as a private individual meeting with others outside duty hours, as in this case.
But it is true that General Gould walks a fine line when it comes to religion. Equal to his obligation to accommodate the religious needs of his subordinates is his duty to ensure that none of them step over the line and cross from permissible free expression of their own religious beliefs into impermissible religious discrimination or oppression of subordinates.
It is that line that Weinstein legitimately guards. But that responsibility is ultimately General Gould’s, which is why he’s a General Officer and Superintendent and Weinstein is not.
General Gould must not surrender to this coercion, intolerance, bigotry and prejudice. He has a duty to his subordinates to reasonably accommodate their religious needs, and he has a right to participate along with them.
© 2011 Altnews