Group demands removal of Bible from desk on Air Force base, punishment of Christian officer

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Personnel work at the Air Force Space Command Network Operations & Security Center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, July 20, 2010. In another unit on the base, an open Bible at a work station like these has reportedly harmed the morale of personnel who are uncomfortable with the display. | REUTERS/Rick Wilking

COLORADO SPRINGS (Christian Examiner) – The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) is demanding that an Air Force officer who displayed an open Bible at his work station at Peterson Air Force Base, as well as his superior who allowed it, be "swiftly, visibly and aggressively punished" for the display.

In a letter to Col. Damon Feltman, commander of 310th Space Wing, MRFF's president Mikey Weinstein, himself a former Air Force officer, wrote that Maj. Steve Lewis has kept the open Bible "replete with yellow-highlighted verses" on his desk for years – and that carries the imprimatur of the official's endorsement of Christianity.

Weinstein, who claims his organization is protecting the military against a right-wing, Christian fundamentalist takeover, said the open Bible is an "egregious" violation of the Constitution and Air Force regulations which prohibit personnel from imposing their views on others. He also called it "a brazen display of sectarian Christian triumphalism and exceptionalism" that threatens to destroy the morale and discipline of the unit.

The open Bible at a work station at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A group of Air Force personnel have complained to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation that the display is threatening and a command endorsement of the superiority of Christianity. The member of the military branch who complained also claims he [or she] is also a "devout Christian." | Military Religious Freedom Foundation

According to MRFF, 33 Air Force personnel – some Christian – contacted the foundation to seek its assistance after the officer directly over Maj. Davis (Col. Lisa Johnson) did not order the Bible removed after several of them complained in a unit "climate survey" that they felt threatened by the display. That inaction also constituted a command endorsement of the display, Weinstein claims.

Weinstein also wrote there would immediately be "limitless, overflowing blood in the streets" if – instead of a Bible displayed at the desk – there was a different sectarian work open and highlighted, such as the Satanic Bible, the Quran, or any one of several atheist texts by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.

"Can you seriously not see MRFF's crystal clear, rational and reasonable point here, Colonel Feltman?" Weinstein asked in the letter.

After Col. Feltman's receipt of the mercurial complaint from Weinstein, the Bible was removed from the desk, though it isn't clear if an order was given to Maj. Davis or if it was removed by a superior officer. Col. Feltman has also ordered an internal investigation into the matter to resolve the issue.

Feltman told the Colorado Springs Independent that Air Force officers have a right to the free exercise of their religious beliefs under Department of Defense policy, but that exercise has to be conducted in the right way – "within boundaries."

Personnel, he said, have "freedom to be left alone."

"It's finding the right balance. The challenge of the commander is to be sure both people are treated fairly," Col. Feltman told the paper.

Col. Feltman also said his command would take corrective action if the "display" was out of line with Air Force regulations governing the free exercise of religion. 

The commander did, however, address Weinstein's claim that blood would flow "in the streets" if another religious text other than the Bible was on display. He said an airman who had a Muslim holy book or a Satanic book would be allowed to "display and read it as long as they're not proselytizing, trying to entice someone to their particular viewpoint."