Activists object to Christmas toy drive on Air Force base – and win

by Gregory Tomlin |

(Operation Christmas Child/Samaritan's Purse)Children smile after receiving their gifts via Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan's Purse. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation recently objected to an email sent to airmen at Dover Air Force Base asking them to participate in the volunteer effort to send gifts to orphans overseas, primarily because the effort was related to Christianity.

DOVER AFB (Christian Examiner) – Less than 24 hours after the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) objected to military personnel at an airbase in Delaware being invited through official channels to volunteer with Operation Christmas Child (OCC) – a Christian charity – the activist group has already won its victory.

In an email to Air Force personnel with the 436th Force Support Squadron Oct. 20, squadron commander Lt. Col. Donald Tasker said that the invitation to volunteer, which "contained language supporting the Christian faith and encouraged participation in this event as an act of Christian faith," was not sent at his direction or "endorsed in any way by me or any level of command."

Tasker wrote in his explanation of Air Force regulations that government email could be used to promote events of common interest outside of military service, but it could not be used by a Defense Department employee in way that appears to "provide command endorsement of a particular faith."

We should be commending members of the Air Force, not condemning them for wanting to serve orphans. The e-mail announcing a volunteer opportunity in no way violates any Air Force policy or regulations, especially since the program involved is a federally approved charity. We sincerely hope that Lt. Col. Tasker will stand behind those under his command who simply make others aware of how they may serve others if they so choose.
- Army Chaplain (Col. Ret.) Ron Crews

According to MRFF, airmen at Dover Air Force Base were invited in an Oct. 14 email from the squadron commander's personal command secretary and chief administrative assistant, Valencia Branch, to volunteer in the toy drive which sends shoeboxes filled with toys and clothes to underprivileged children around the world at Christmas. The email "included an absolutely unambiguous endorsement of OCC," the complaint letter from the activist group's president, Mikey Weinstein, said.

"In her message she described an upcoming event as a "GREAT VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY!!!" in flagrant violation of CFR 2635.702 – Use of public office for private gain," Weinstein alleged.

Weinstein wrote in the complaint that Branch had also used her "official position and government authority to openly and willfully proselytize the evangelical Christian faith by endorsing and soliciting participation with the non-federal entities Central Delmar Operation Christmas Child (OCC) and Calvary Christian Academy (CCA)."

Operation Christmas Child is a ministry of Samaritan's Purse, the charitable organization run by evangelist Franklin Graham.

Weinstein also produced text from the email in which Branch said the shoeboxes that would be sent around the world would "show children in desperate situations that God loves and values them ... Many have never of God's incredible free Gift of Salvation through His Son. But a simple gift, a shoebox packed and prayed for by you could give a child hope and eternal security."

In addition to the volunteer offering's Christian theme, Weinstein said the email violated Air Force and Department of Defense regulations concerning the use of official email for private business and concerning the endorsement of religion.

"Members of the United States Air Force, to include all civilian government employees of the United States Air Force, must respect the often forgotten truth that public office is not a tool that can be permissibly or constitutionally used to spread any particular religious belief or even lack of religious belief such as atheism, agnosticism, et al. When that public or, in this specific case, military office becomes such a manifestly dangerous tool, it could best be described as a radioactive wrecking-ball of surpassing hazard, disease and risk to the unit cohesion, good order, morale, discipline, military readiness, mission accomplishment, health and safety of any military or civilian subordinates unfortunate enough to serve under such sectarian command-directed leadership," Weinstein wrote.

"I quite assure you, sir, that our 14 MRFF clients directly under your command can fully attest to the disastrous impact Ms. Branch's proselytizing e-mail has had on THEIR unit cohesion, good order, morale etc."

One group, the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Freedom, said in a statement that Weinstein, who is a former Air Force officer, had misinterpreted Air Force regulations and was also disrespectful to Air Force personnel in his complaint letter.

"We should be commending members of the Air Force, not condemning them for wanting to serve orphans," said Army Chaplain (Col. Ret.) Ron Crews, executive director of the chaplain's group, made up of endorsing organizations for the 2,600 military chaplains serving today.

"The e-mail announcing a volunteer opportunity in no way violates any Air Force policy or regulations, especially since the program involved is a federally approved charity. We sincerely hope that Lt. Col. Tasker will stand behind those under his command who simply make others aware of how they may serve others if they so choose."

Tasker didn't take the chaplains' advice to heart. He sent his email to squadron personnel, bowing to MRFF, only 26 hours after receiving the complaint from Weinstein and MRFF.

This isn't the first time MRFF has chastised a military agency to task for seeking volunteer participation in Operation Christmas Child. In November 2011, Weinstein objected to the academy cadets promoting the charity at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. That program was then placed under the wing of the school's chaplain, according to Christianity Today.