COMMENTARY: How the Grinch stole Christmas – at Dover Air Force Base

by Dr. Gregory Tomlin |

(Operation Christmas Child/Samaritan's Purse)

WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – You have to hand it to Mikey Weinstein, the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. He has a way with words – words like "manifestly dangerous tool" and "radioactive wrecking-ball of surpassing hazard."

Last week, Weinstein and his foundation used those words when a civilian employee at Dover Air Force Base, the personal aide to a lieutenant colonel, used her official email to inform personnel in the 436th Force Support Squadron of a "great opportunity" to volunteer with Operation Christmas Child.

Apparently, the offer to volunteer in a program that sends soap, socks, school supplies and Life Savers in shoeboxes to underprivileged children overseas is now as dangerous as the Islamic State in the eyes of Weinstein and the other hostiles at the foundation.

It is so, he argues, because the email invitation forwarded to military personnel called for the voluntary support of a specifically Christian organization which – gasp – has the audacity to describe itself as such.

In the email, personnel were invited to help pack 5,000 shoeboxes to send overseas as a "missionary" endeavor. The packing party was described on the Operation Christmas Child flyer as "a way to show children in desperate situations that God loves and values them. Many of these children have never received a gift before. Many have never heard 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."

Weinstein, who is Jewish, pounced. He wrote that the email, because it spread religious belief, was a violation of military protocol – the most egregious type of infraction, a "disease" and a "risk to 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." It was also, he said, an "endorsement" of the Christian charity and a violation of the basic principles of religious liberty.

Talk about trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer. Weinstein's literary acumen is as sharp as his predilection for hyperbole. 

His words, selectively quoting military regulations, were pointed enough to intimidate Air Force Lt. Col. Donald Tasker, who said in an email shortly after receiving Weinstein's complaint that he had not authorized the message about Operation Christmas Child. He also reiterated that official channels were not the means by which such information should be communicated.

That is just what Weinstein wants. He wants his interpretation of military regulations and the First Amendment imposed on the military. He was, after all, an officer in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) corps for a decade.

In reality, both Weinstein's interpretation of military regulations and the First Amendment are just flat wrong, a truth illustrated by the fact that his complaints are seldom addressed by the branch of the military with which he once worked. 

In the current case, Weinstein claims DOD Instruction 5410.19 "prohibits the providing of a selective benefit or preferential treatment to any organization," and especially a religious one. Therefore, military personnel – even civilian employees – should not be allowed to speak of a Christian charity. Right?

Not exactly. While it is true that the military does place tighter controls on religious expression because it is a "specialized society," Weinstein only cited the portion of the directive he agrees with – the part that prohibits religious organizations receiving support preferentially. The directive later states:

"When DoD support is provided to one non-Federal entity, the DoD Component commands or organizations providing such support must be able and willing to provide similar support to comparable events sponsored by similar non-Federal entities."

And in Department of Defense Instruction 5410.18, which governs public affairs and community relations activities within the military, the defense department allows for military organizations and military families to participate in charitable, "non-federal entities" (NFEs) to contribute to morale and positive community relations.

Guidance on the regulation claims collaborative work with NFEs maintains "connections throughout the military community that are vital to sustaining the all-volunteer force and bridging the civilian-military divide."

Furthermore, "Commanders are authorized to use official command communication channels to inform members and their families about the availability of services and support provided at their installation by nonprofit NFEs operating under the provisions of this memorandum. Such information distribution does not imply endorsement."

Weinstein is also wrong when the original intent of the First Amendment is considered.

I teach often about the First Amendment and its role in disestablishment. I speak of government's required neutral position with respect to religion, the "wall of separation between church and state" – as Jefferson put it in 1802 – and even "the wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world," as Roger Williams, America's first Baptist, proposed in 1644.

Both Williams and Jefferson – who likely borrowed the "separation" terminology from the early Baptist – were interested in keeping the church pure, or full of people who wanted to be there, and the boot of government off the consciences of religious and non-religious people. Church and state should not be entangled, both believed, but they also shouldn't be hostile to one another.

Weinstein believes in the liberal paradigm of church-state relations – hostility, not neutrality. That is also why he favors tighter controls on military chaplains and forbidding any military officer from uttering "God," "Jesus Christ" or "my Christian faith" in uniform. 

In reality, nothing illegal occurred in the issuance of the invitation for Air Force personnel to volunteer because the action of the employee who forwarded the email fails every test applied to First Amendment cases – what I have chosen collectively to call the "Six 'C' Test."

SIX 'C' TEST

A plaintiff may generally have a religious liberty claim if they are compelled by government to violate their religious conscience, are coerced to participate actively in a private or public religious ceremony, are confined for refusing to adopt doctrinal viewpoints or practices, or have had property confiscated as a result of the action of a government entity because of religious belief.

The last "C" in this test is important – context.

Does the context where the supposed violation of policy or the First Amendment occurred warrant a religious liberty claim? Was there intent to use the imprimatur of the commander's office to force participation in this, the vilest of Christian charities (as Weinstein sees it)?

The answer to both questions is resoundingly "no."

There was no command endorsement of Operation Christmas Child, and not even the description of the packaging party as a "great opportunity" changes that, because the person sending the email was a civilian not in the chain of military command and who has no authority to command. There was no indication in the email that she had been directed to make all personnel aware of the volunteer opportunity and ensure compliance with a military order.

I have no doubt that such words as those in the Operation Christmas Child email offended some military personnel, but the First Amendment does not guarantee anyone – atheist, Jew or even any Christian – freedom from offense, Mr. Weinstein, even in the military.

It does protect from compulsion, coercion, confinement, confiscation and actual violations of conscience (such as claims of conscientious objection). None of those are in play here.

Dr. Gregory Tomlin covers the intersection of politics, culture and religion for Christian Examiner. He is also Assistant Professor of Church History and a faculty instructional mentor for Liberty University Divinity School. Tomlin earned his Ph.D. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also studied at Baylor University and Boston University's summer Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. He wrote his dissertation on Southern Baptists and their influence on military-foreign policy in Vietnam from 1965-1973.