Citing Threat to Free Speech, House GOP Leaders Demand That Defense Secretary Explain Why Gays-in-the-Military Critic Was Barred from Air Force Prayer Meeting

By Pete Winn | March 9, 2010 | 5:54 PM EST

In this Feb. 2, 2010, file photo Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, seen with Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, testifies about the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

( – The current and former House Republican Whips are calling on Defense Secretary Robert Gates to explain the “written or unwritten policies” that led the Air Force to rescind its invitation to conservative leader Tony Perkins from speaking at a national prayer luncheon at Andrews Air Force Base because he disagrees with President Obama’s policy on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
In a letter to Gates dated March 4, Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told the defense secretary they were “concerned” that a “new litmus test” was being applied when the Air Force (as earlier reported)  changed its mind about letting Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, participate in the Feb. 25 event “because statements posted on the organization he leads are purportedly at odds with the positions of the president” -- statements condemning Obama's intention to change the military policy on homosexuality.

“This action troubles us a great deal,” the congressmen wrote, “not only in this particular case, but because of the implications for anyone who might disagree with the administration in the future.”
They asked Gates: “Specifically, is it the policy of the Air Force and/or other branches of the armed services to allow only those individuals who agree with the president on all matters of policy to participate in ministry events they host?”
The congressmen labeled the Air Force action as a “new litmus test.”
“The luncheon in which Dr. Perkins, a former Marine, was scheduled to participate was designed as a time of prayer, not of policy discussion,” the congressmen noted.
On Jan. 29, shortly after President Obama’s State of the Union address, the chaplain’s office at Andrews notified Perkins that it was rescinding the invitation because of “statements posted on the Family Research Council Web site, which are incompatible in our role as military members who serve our elected officials and our commander-in-chief.”
The congressmen pointed out that there was no further explanation about the statements in question, nor the alleged incompatibility was provided.
“What is clear from this letter, however, is the establishment of a new litmus test -- if one disagrees with the president, that person is not welcome to participate in military activities,” Cantor and Blunt wrote. “Holding private citizens to such a standard – one not even expected of senior military officials, who are often asked to give their expert military opinions to Congress, is incredibly disconcerting.
They added: “The chilling impact such a standard could have on the free speech of private citizens and those who serve in our armed forces, guaranteeing precisely these types of freedoms, cannot be allowed to stand.

The congressmen asked Gates to reply.

Perkins told that he was surprised that the letter was sent -- but understood why.

“I think the members of Congress who saw this understood it for what it was --“that this is a direct assault on religious liberty and freedom of speech," Perkins said. "And I think they see where this policy change – the path that its taking us down – is leading and I think they are right to ask these questions because it very well could be a foretaste of things to come.”

A Defense Department spokeswoman could not confirm if Secretary Gates has received the letter.

The Cantor-Blunt letter, meanwhile, is not the only letter sent by a member of Congress concerned about the implication of the Perkins incident.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the chairman of the House Republican Conference, sent a letter to Gates purportedly asking for an investigation of the incident. Though Pence’s office confirmed the letter was sent, it would not release the contents.