(CNSNews.com) – In response to a letter from a coalition of religious liberty advocates concerned about anti-Christian bias in Defense Department "equal opportunity" training materials, the Department of Defense says it is reviewing those materials and will decide this month whether to continue using “private organizations” as resources in developing them.
The coalition specifically cited the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as a group the military should stop relying upon as a source for equal opportunity training.
DOD spokesman Lt. Commander Nathan Christensen told CNSNews.com on Dec. 19 that if DOD decides to continue using private groups as resources, it will also decide whether a disclaimer should be included when those organizations are cited in DOD training materials.
Christensen did not say whether DOD would agree to meet with members of the coalition concerned about religious freedom in the military to discuss their concerns.
The Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition, a group of 23 non-profit organizations, sent their letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Dec. 6.
The coalition--which includes the Family Research Council, the Center for Military Readiness, and the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty--told Hagel it came together because “[b]y the beginning of this summer a number of events had occurred that raised concerns about the status of religious liberties enjoyed by America’s military personnel.” (See Coalition Letter.pdf)
A report produced by the Family Research Council (FRC) cites numerous examples over the last six years of members of the military being targeted by the Defense Department for their religious beliefs.
The letter to Hagel references several cases from the report.
“In his capacity as the informal head of this coalition of like-minded groups, Gen. Boykin wrote to you on October 24, 2013 to express grave concern about equal opportunity (EO) training incidents at Camp Shelby and Fort Hood in which our colleagues at the American Family Association (AFA) were singled out and described as extremists," says the letter. "We believe this categorization was applied to AFA based on materials produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, a member of the coalition, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the DOD seeking training materials, including those used by the DOD’s equal opportunity training offices.
One of the training documents released as a result of this FOIA was a Powerpoint presentation, entitled “Extremism & Extremist Organizations," that was used at a March 2012 Pennsylvania Army Reserve Equal Opportunity training presentation. It states, “The number of hate groups, extremists and anti-government organizations in the U.S. has continued to grow over the past three years, according to reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center.” (See Extremism Presentation.pdf)
A page in this Powerpoint presentation is entitled “Religious Extremism.” Among a list of radical groups--such as Al Qaeda, the Nation of Islam, and the Ku Klux Klan--are also listed “Evangelical Christianity (U.S./Christian)” and “Catholicism (U.S./Christian).” (See Extremism Presentation.pdf)
The Dec. 6 letter to Secretary Hagel details how the SPLC, which was cited as a source in this DOD presentation, inspired Floyd Corkins, the man who was convicted of domestic terrorism for a shooting attack on the Family Research Council headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 2012. Corkins told authorities he targeted FRC after he found the Christian family advocacy group’s name on a “hate map” on the SPLC’s web site.
“Despite this damning tie between the Southern Poverty Law Center and actual extremists, it is well documented that individual installation EO [equal opportunity] briefings continue to draw upon SPLC data and talking points,” the letter to Hagel states. “That would likely encourage other trainers to use their materials.” (See Coalition Letter.pdf)
Lt. Commander Christensen responded to a CNSNews.com inquiry about the letter to Hagel in a Dec. 19 email.
Christensen began by saying it would be “inappropriate” for him to speak for Hagel.
“However, I can tell you that the Department is taking four actions,” Christensen said. “First, the Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness has directed the Services to complete a review of their MEO training programs to ensure it comports with policy and guidance.”
“Second, the Department is now reviewing the DEOMI education and training materials for Equal Opportunity Advisors (EOAs) to make certain that, when it applies to DOD policy, it is accurate,” Christensen said. (DEOMI stands for Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute.)
“Third, DEOMI is developing, with coordination by OSD [Office of Secretary of Defense] and the Services, standardized training templates for training topics such as extremism in order to stop individuals from developing their own training materials that are neither approved nor endorsed by the Department or their component,” Christensen said.
“Fourth, OSD is working with DEOMI to determine whether DEOMI should refer to private organizations in DEOMI's training materials and, if so, what disclaimer is appropriate,” the spokesman said.
Christensen said the Defense Department anticipates completing all four actions by mid-January 2014.
Boykin praised the decision to review training materials--with a caveat.
“I’m glad to see that they are taking this seriously,” Boykin told CNSNews.com. “But I reserve my final judgment until I see what action they take.”
“Actions they take will speak louder than any words,” the retired lieutenant general said.
“We want the DOD to no longer use the SPLC as a source in any of its training materials,” Ron Crews, executive director of CARL, told CNSNews.com.
“[SPLC] is a politically charged organization that has no place in the military,” Crews said.
DOD's statement to CNSNews.com also stressed the department's policy of prohibiting members of the military from advocating or participating in "extremist" causes.
“The Department of Defense strictly prohibits military personnel from advocating or participating in supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology, or causes, including those that advance, encourage, or advocate illegal discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity, or national origin or those that advance, encourage or advocate the use of force, violence or criminal activity,” the statement says.
The coaltion's letter to Hagel clearly stated the coalition’s hope that DOD would review its training materials and stop using the Southern Poverty Law Center as a source.
“Our coalition believes OSD [Office of Secretary of Defense] should issue clear guidance to DEOMI [Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute ] and instructing installations to stop relying on SPLC and other non-governmental sources as approved resources for equal opportunity training or other purposes--especially, those dealing with such topics as hate crimes and other politically charged activities. (See Coalition Letter.pdf)
“Rest assured that our coalition members will not allow our organizations to be demonized by DOD agencies," said the letter. “We would appreciate an update from you following the review of DOD training materials. Before such guidance is issued, however, we believe it would beneficial if several representatives of our coalition were to meet with you to discuss our DOD-wide concerns.”
DOD's Christensen did not respond to a question from CNSNews.com about whether such a meeting would be granted.
The organizations included in the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition are American Values, Patriotic Veterans, Freedom X, Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, Family Research Council, Judicial Watch, Center for Security Policy, Liberty Counsel, Liberty Institute, Thomas More Law Center, Alliance Defending Freedom, Military-Veterans Advocacy, Inc., Media Research Center, Center for Military Readiness, ICECE, and the American Family Association.
The Media Research Center is the parent organization of CNSNews.com.
Sixteen members of the coalition signed the Dec. 6 letter to Hagel. Among them were Gary L. Bauer, president of American Values; Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness; L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Media Research Center; Thomas Fitton, president of Judicial Watch; John B. Wells, executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy; and Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family association.
In its report, A Clear and Present Danger: The Threat to Religious Liberty in the Military, the FRC presents what it describes is “a list of discrete events presenting a larger picture of the threat to religious liberty that now exists in America’s armed forces. The examples provided represent only a portion of the concerted efforts to scrub the military of religious expression, through which the chilling effect of punishment and potential career destruction lie at the back of everyone’s mind.”
Included in the list of more than 50 incidents that took place between 2004 and 2015 are the following:
• Casey Weinstein – 2004. United States Air Force (USAF) Academy grad (1977) and attorney, Michael “Mikey” Weinstein’s son, Casey, was a USAF Academy cadet at this time. Casey complained that flyers had been placed on all cadets’ breakfast plates advertising Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Distribution of the flyers stopped after that. (In 2005, Mikey Weinstein founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation [MRFF], headquartered in Albuquerque, NM).
• Christian prayer is banned at military funerals – July 26, 2011. After going undercover, U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) confirmed that the Houston National Cemetery was preventing Christian prayers from being said at military funerals. According to Todd Starnes’ report, “[Culberson] witnessed volunteer members of the honor guard from the Veterans of Foreign Wars being prohibited from using any references to God.” In October 2011, the Veterans Administration (VA) settled a lawsuit filed by the Liberty Institute regarding religious freedom and free speech at the cemetery. The VA agreed to numerous terms that helped to restore prior policies there and paid $215,000 in legal fees.
• Walter Reed Medical Center bans Bibles and religious material – September 14, 2011. Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the leading medical institution for the U.S. armed forces, issued an official patient and visitor policy banning Bibles. It stated, “No religious items (i.e. Bibles, reading material, and/or artifacts) are allowed to be given away or used during a visit.”
In December 2011, the policy was rescinded after a political firestorm erupted in the House of Representatives.
• Pennsylvania Army Reserve training document labels Evangelical Christians and Catholics “extremists” – March 2012. As part of a presentation on extremism at a Pennsylvania Army Reserve Equal Opportunity training brief on extremism the instructor included “Evangelical Christianity” and “Catholicism,” as examples of religious extremism. The list also included Al Qaeda, Hamas, Islamophobia and the KKK. When asked where she obtained her information, she referred to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a left-wing fundraising powerhouse that has attempted to discredit Christian organizations. Upon learning of this incident, the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services stated it was “astounded that Catholics were listed alongside groups that are, by their very mission and nature, violent and extremist.”
• Air Force officer told to remove Bible from desk – May 2, 2013. Air Force personnel had been told that they might express their beliefs as long as they do not “make others uncomfortable.” This rule led to an officer being asked to remove a copy of the Bible from his desk. According to the Fox News report the ”officer was told • he could no longer keep a Bible on his desk because it ‘[might]’ appear that he was condoning a particular religion.”
• Catholic chaplain sues to end discriminatory exclusion from performing his duties – October 4, 2013. On October 4, 2013, during a federal government shutdown, the Department of Defense told a Catholic priest and civilian contractor, Father Ray Leonard, that he was non-essential and would be furloughed at the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia. Fr. Leonard, who was the Catholic priest for the base, was threatened with arrest for voluntarily celebrating Holy Mass there. He was also barred from entering the base chapel. Only Catholic service members were left without services; Protestant services continued during the shutdown. On October 14, the Thomas More Law Center, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, filed suit on Fr. Leonard’s behalf in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The next day the government relented and agreed to allow Fr. Leonard to resume all his religious duties and to have unrestricted use of the base chapel.
Michael W. Chapman contributed to this report.