[UPDATE: Without explanation, the Air Force has remedied the situation described here, after the story was posted, and before the St. Louis Post Dispatch posted their own story on the controversy. The story still stands as a record of what did happen--and would have remained true without media exposure, which began right here with this story. Added details below.]
Prayer is supposed to bring people together, at least that’s the promise. But in practice it’s often the opposite. During the Civil Rights Movement, for example, it was frequently noted that Sunday mornings were the most segregated time of the week. Today’s military reveals another contradiction—how coercive prayer events undermine the very cohesion they’re allegedly supposed to promote. While Trump’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast has sparked widespread controversy, there are close to a thousand similar prayer breakfasts and luncheons being held at military bases across the country and around the world, and those events—barely noticed by the wider civilian world—always embody some degree of that contradiction, which is closely monitored by Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
This year, at Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County, Illinois, the local Air Force commander, Colonel Jeremiah S. Heathman, clearly crossed a bright line, where informal social pressure crosses over into conduct that’s clearly prohibited, in order to protect the religious freedom of all who serve under him.
“It should be the chapel running a prayer breakfast, not the command,” MRFF President Mikey Weinstein told Crooks and Liars. [See Heathman’s invitation here.] “Both the sender of the invitation and the prayer breakfast's speaker are high ranking (one officer and one NCO) in command positions, and are clearly in violation of Air Force Instruction 1-1.” As a result, fifteen individuals—Christian and non-Christian alike—reached out for MRFF’s help.
Specifically, AFI 1-1, Paragraph 2.12 states:
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 (emphasis added).
The question of balance is crucial here. Of course military commanders have freedom of religion, but so does everyone serving under them, and they cannot act in a manner that infringes on the rights of others by violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. This regulation was drafted specifically to address the balance of concerns that exists in the military.
“These prayer breakfasts are supposed to bring people together and encourage unit cohesion,” Weinstein said. “But they're used as a cudgel, were started by The Family, that Jeff Sharlet talks about [in his books, C Street and The Family], and they do the exact opposite—they are literally an atomic bomb on good order, morale, discipline, and unit cohesion,” which are considered essential to the military’s mission.
Nine years ago, the MRFF sued the Air Force Academy over one such prayer breakfast, where the invitation came from the vice commander and the featured speaker was Marine 1st Lt. Clebe McClary, described simply as “an inspirational speaker,” but whose website declared “U.S.M.C. will always mean a U.S. Marine for Christ.” MRFF represented more than 100 clients and was joined in the lawsuit by five Air Force Academy faculty members.
Although MRFF did not win in court, the three-day hearing sent a message. “We blazed a trail nine years ago, in federal court,” Weinstein said. “We know the Academy thought that they’d be in there for 10 or 15 minutes, but they were raked over the coals with this, and since that time, we have not had a problem with them.”
It’s not that specific problems don’t arise, but that they’re handled quickly and quietly when they do—like the vast majority of the problems MRFF deals with.
“We get completely smothered this time of year,” Weinstein said. “After we get through the holidays, which is always difficult, we might have a couple weeks, a fortnight of a little bit of a respite, but then we get into what we call national prayer lunch and national prayer breakfast season for the military.” It lasts from mid-January through February or early March. “Almost every military installation has one,” he explained. “Not all of them but the overwhelming majority.”
The hierarchical nature of the military means that religious minorities routinely experience pressures civilians might find it hard to fathom. Prayer breakfasts and luncheons exacerbate the day-to-day experience. Minority religions are only occasionally represented, and there’s no history of seeking out speakers with an affirmatively inclusive perspective. “The military is steeped in white male straight Christian privilege,” Weinstein noted, “And I've said it before, fish in an aquarium never see the water.”
But that doesn’t mean taking on every fight.
“There's two ways that MRFF will not get involved,” Weinstein explained. “The first is if the speaker doesn't have any history of being a religious extremist,” he said. In this case, the speaker was the top non-commissioned officer in a different command, an odd choice that caught MRFF’s attention, but they found no such questionable history. “The second is how are you invited. If you're invited through the chaplain, we'll stay out of it. We don't like it, we don't like the whole thing, it's terrible, but at least the chaplains arguably cannot put the duress on a military subordinate,” because they are not command officers. But it’s still less than ideal. “Having chaplains in the military would be okay with us if they didn't also have military rank,” he explained. “If they were civilian employees, it would be much easier to get away from the duress of the seeing a general's stars or an admiral's stars on some chaplains.”
In his demand letter to Colonel Heathman, Weinstein spelled it out. “A formal invitation from a senior Commander in an airman's chain-of-command is not something to be taken casually. Indeed, sir, the verb “volunTOLD” pretty much says it all. The RSVP is, in itself, an order to reply.”
The solution at Scott Air Force Base is both easy and simple: withdraw the command letter, with an explanation, and have another sent out by the chaplain instead. The breakfast can go on exactly as planned. Nothing operational has to be changed. Just two emails, and it's fixed. So why isn’t the Air Force responding?
The demand letter was cc’d to Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett, and Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, so the Air Force as a whole has been notified. But so far, Weinstein said, “I received one arrogant call phone call back from a member of their public affairs office, saying, ‘Mr. Weinstein, we have your letter, we are aware of your request, and that is our only statement at this time.'”
Crooks and Liars got a shorter version, when we called to confirm: “We are aware. That’s our statement.”
“I called them back and they don't want to talk,” Weinstein said. “They don't want to do the right thing.”
[UPDATE] Apparently the threat of media exposure was not enough to change their minds, but two or three hours after this story posted, they seemed to change their minds. As the Post-Dispatch reported:
On Monday morning, the wording on the invitation was changed to take out the commander's name. Weinstein said he considers that a win.
It falls short of fulling owning up and turning the episode into a learning opportunity. But MRFF's clients should be relieved, and the chances of repetition have again been diminished, protecting countless Air Force service members in the future..