Every year around Christmas time, Salvation Army volunteers show up across America. Every year, a number of them are serving members of the military. And every year some serious constitutional lines get crossed, also damaging the military’s effectiveness.
“We get a bunch of Salvation Army issues every year,” Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation told Crooks and Liars. They can be handled quickly and efficiently by command staff that understands the law, their own regulations, and the reasons behind them. And then there are trainwrecks, which have only gotten more dangerous since the election of Donald Trump.
Members of Grand Forks Air Force Base raised concerns after high-ranking officials sent an email Tuesday that offered an opportunity to volunteer for the Salvation Army during duty hours.
Mikey Weinstein, founder of Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said about 40 military members contacted him because they said they felt the base was showing religious favoritism….
"There's no problem with the Salvation Army," Weinstein said. "The problem is with the Air Force singling it out and endorsing a nonfederal entity, but more importantly, this is a direct violation of the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment."
The problem began with an innocent request for volunteers from a single staff sergeant, who emailed a superior:
I’m looking for 25-30 volunteers for the Salvation Army @ 1600 University Ave, 58203, for 17 and 18 Dec from 0830- 1530. It will be a fun-filled day of handing out food baskets and gifts to families in the Grand Forks community. Anyone interested can just e-mail me for details! It’s a great way to give back to our community and get involved in serving others.
She should have been told to channel her request through chaplaincy services, which in turn has email outreach to service members and contractors who specifically want it. That’s how the military is supposed to handle the balance of protecting servicemember’s religious freedom in a religiously diverse organization where all are pledged to a higher purpose—defending the freedom of all, a standard clearly established by Supreme Court in Parker vs. Levy in 1974, and reflected in the regulations of all the different services.
Key to military effectiveness is the maintenance of “good order, morale, discipline, and unit cohesion,” and Air Force Instruction 1-1, Section 2.12 specifically addresses the concerns here:
2.12. Balance of Free Exercise of Religion and Establishment Clause. Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for their own free exercise of religion, including individual expressions of religious beliefs, and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. They must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief, or absence of belief.
Routing the original volunteer request through chaplaincy services would have followed this instruction—which is “mandatory, not advisory,” meaning service-members can be court-martialed for ignoring it. Which is exactly what happened in this case. Instead, it was sent to a list of 17 other non-commissioned officers, one of whom then sent it out as a base-wide email.
That’s when MRFF became involved, in response to almost 40 complaints, the majority of whom were either Protestant or Roman Catholic. “They have completely ripped asunder good order, morale, discipline, and unit cohesion,” Weinstein told Crooks and Liars. “Our clients feel humiliated, confused and, and terrified.”
There’s a military term for a ‘request’ for volunteers that comes through official channels like this, it’s called being ‘voluntold.’
“All of our clients have told us they are rated on their performance for career advancement, for promotions, for everything on how well they interface with the local community,” Weinstein said. “They were being voluntold that you will do it.”
It was a mistake that could have been quickly corrected. A few weeks earlier something similar happened in a different service.
“We had a commander that sent around sign-up sheets, hardcopy and told his subordinates you will sign up for an hour, working during the duty day,” Weinstein said. “I went to that commander's commander and it took 7 minutes to get that fixed, and that particular subordinate commander was given a formal letter of counsel—at least that's what we understand. In this instance, it is just complete and total willful ignorance, or somebody’s trying to push the dominionist concept.”
Weinstein tried a similar approach this time, consulting with his clients first.
“The first thing I did was I asked the subordinates, ‘Do you feel comfortable going up to the chain of command and registering your concerns?’” he recalled. The answer was no.
“They were terrified,” Weinstein said. “Everyone watches TV. They look at our ‘commander-in-chief,’ they see what's happening. He campaigned on championing the concept that ‘Happy Holidays’ are gone, and it’s ‘Merry Christmas’ time. So people are terrified.”
“The command climate there at Grand Forks Air Force Base is toxic and poisonous, I don't really believe that this is an example of where they just don't seem to have a clue,” Weinstein said. “We’ve been fighting this for 15 years, and the moment we got involved I called four or five command elements there, and then I called our folks at the Pentagon, they are very senior people at the Pentagon. They groaned, and went ‘Ugh! You're right. Not this again!’ They said, ‘Before we get involved you should try going to the higher headquarters.’”
In fact, it was a bit messier than that, because of Trump’s political appointees overseeing the career staff. “When we went to the senior people at the Pentagon, they immediately realized how bad it was,” Weinstein said. “But they told me once again, Mikey, if we get this to the political level of the Pentagon were going to be crushed. So if you can handle it at the 25th Air Force, that’ll be great.”
So that’s when Weinstein reached out to the 25th Air Force headquarters at Joint Base San Antonio. But “The commanders are afraid to engage, they sent us over to the public affairs office,” he said. This was Tuesday. There was no response until Friday, the same day they sent a virtually identical ‘explanation’ to me, ignoring every single question I had asked:
We hold in highest regard our partnerships with communities around the world. Airmen of 25th Air Force are thankful for the opportunity to give back to the communities which support them throughout the year.
25th Air Force Airmen have donated thousands of hours in community service across a wide array of charities, to include the United Way, Humane Society, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Salvation Army, American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Wounded Warrior Project, just to name a few.
In each and every case, we seek to do so in a way that upholds our Air Force core values, governing guidance, and applicable law.
But all those other charities are not the same as the Salvation Army, which is a specifically religious organization, falling under AFI 1-1, Section 2.11. Officially supporting the Salvation Army violates the provision that leaders (including non-commissioned officers) “must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief, or absence of belief.”
This is clear from the Salvation Army’s own website, which states:
THE DOCTRINES OF THE SALVATION ARMY
As set out in Schedule 1 of The Salvation Army Act 1980
We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God, and that they only constitute the Divine rule of Christian faith and practice.
We believe that there is only one God, who is infinitely perfect, the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of all things, and who is the only proper object of religious worship.
We believe that there are three persons in the Godhead – the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, undivided in essence and co-equal in power and glory.
We believe that in the person of Jesus Christ the Divine and human natures are united, so that He is truly and properly God and truly and properly man....
In sharp contrast, Weinstein said, “You can imagine what would've happened if the same command had come down and told everyone, ‘During the duty day, in your uniform on University Boulevard we’re going to be helping out an Islamic organization, a Satanic organization, or the local atheist organization or whatever.”
“You cannot do that,” he said. “It violates the ‘No Establishment’ clause of the First Amendment, it violates – it really creates a religious test which violates Clause 3 of Article 6 of the body of the Constitution.”
MRFF’s next step will be to file an official DOD Inspector General request.
“We’re going to go with a DoD IG complaint, but at this point we are demanding criminal prosecution for those who have allowed this,” Weinstein said. “What else can you do?”
Violating any provision of AFI 1-1 is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And enabling a crime is also a crime. “If you drive the getaway car for bank robbers, that makes you a bank robber,” Weinstein concluded.