April 30, 2008—At least half a dozen active-duty military officials have been working closely with a task force headed by the far-right fundamentalist Christians planning religious events at military installations around the country to commemorate The National Day of Prayer on May 1.
In working directly with the National Day of Prayer (NDP) Task Force and agreeing to work as event coordinators, these military officials not only violated constitutional provisions governing the separation of church and state, but they also signed an oath that states they “believe that the Holy Bible is the inerrant Word of The Living God” and that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only One by which I can obtain salvation and have an ongoing relationship with God,” according to materials posted on NDP Task Force’s website.
Furthermore, the declaration signed by the military officials says that they promise to “ensure a strong, consistent Christian message throughout the nation” and that National Day of Prayer events scheduled to take place at their military installations “will be conducted solely by Christians.”
Lisa Crump, manager of the NDP Task Force’s local coordinators, said that volunteers who are interested in becoming event coordinators, including members of the military, must complete [click here] "a simple application with contact data and statement of faith, confirming your commitment to Christ is all that's needed to get you on the way to becoming a [National Day of Prayer] Task Force volunteer coordinator."
Mikey Weinstein, the president and founder of the government watchdog group the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, blasted the military’s participation with the task force, saying it endorses a discriminatory policy.
“It is not likely possible to conceive of a more blatant, heinous and noxious constitutional violation by our United States military than its filthy, disgusting participation with the so-called National Day of Prayer Task Force and its incontrovertible fundamentalist Christian supremacy agenda of unconstitutional religious exclusion,” Weinstein said. “Further, please immediately note that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation fully intends to include this despicable collusion in our current Federal litigation against the Department of Defense as yet another stunning example of a pernicious and pervasive pattern and practice of unconstitutional rape of the precious religious liberties of our honorable and noble United States soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen."
The NDP Task Force, which portrays itself as the official organizer of the National Day of Prayer, is headed by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, who has close ties to President Bush.
Although the task force is not directly tied to any federal agency, it has coordinated many of its activities this year with active-duty military chaplains and other military personnel at bases around the country. That would appear to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibiting individuals from using the machinery of the state to promote any form of religion. The Constitution protects the rights of the public to worship, or not, as they see fit.
But the military has not been adhering to these strict regulations.
Indeed, two weeks ago, at Fort Carson Army Base in Colorado, the community events office sent out an email to everyone on the base along with a flyer announcing an event scheduled at Fort Carson in observance of the National Day of Prayer. The email included a message from Specialist Brian Havens, who closed his note with “In Christ.” Havens is identified on the Task force website as an event coordinator, indicating that he signed the Task Force’s "Statement of Faith" application and agreed to uphold the NDP Task Force’s Christian policies.
According to Chris Rodda, the senior research director for The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Weinstein tried to persuade one military chaplain to disassociate himself from a Task Force event in Missouri.
Rodda said she and Weinstein were “surprised” to come across the name of Chaplain Kevin L. McGhee of the Missouri National Guard. According to the NDP Task Force website, Maj. McGhee is scheduled to participate in the NDP Task Force prayer rally at Missouri State Capitol.
This is the same Chaplain McGhee who last year came to the defense of Chaplain Bob Larsen when Larsen converted from Christianity to Wicca and applied to be the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces. When Larsen's application was denied, and he was removed from the chaplain corps, McGhee, who was Larsen's supervisor at Camp Anaconda in Iraq, said that a "grave injustice" had been done, and that "What happened to Chaplain Larsen—to be honest, I think it's political. A lot of people think Wiccans are un-American, because they are ignorant about what Wiccans do."
MRFF informed Chaplain McGhee during a conference call last week of the discriminatory nature of the Missouri State Capitol event and the pledge on the part of its organizers to exclude non-Christians and asked him to reconsider his participation. McGhee has not responded to an email sent yesterday from MRFF asking if he still planned to participate.
This is not the first time the military has come under fire for work it has conducted on behalf of Focus on the Family and other Christian fundamentalist organizations.
Last August, the Pentagon's inspector general responded to a complaint filed in 2006 by Weinstein’s organization alleging that Defense Department officials violated military regulations by appearing in a video promoting Christian Embassy, a subsidiary of Campus Crusade for Christ.
The inspector general agreed and issued a scathing 47-page report that was highly critical of senior Army and Air Force personnel for participating in the video while in uniform and on active duty.
The report found that Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack Catton, Army Brig. Gen Bob Caslen, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, Maj. Gen. Peter Sutton, and a colonel and lieutenant colonel whose names were redacted in the inspector general's report, "improperly endorsed and participated with a non-Federal entity while in uniform" and recommended the men should be disciplined for misconduct. Caslen was formerly the deputy director for political-military affairs for the war on terrorism, directorate for strategic plans and policy, joint staff. He now oversees the 4,200 cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point. Caslen told DOD investigators he agreed to appear in the video upon learning other senior Pentagon officials had been interviewed for the promotional video.
The Army generals who appeared in the video appeared to be speaking on behalf of the military, but they did not obtain prior permission to appear in the video. They defended their actions, according to the inspector general's report, saying the "Christian Embassy had become a 'quasi-Federal entity,' since the DOD had endorsed the organization to General Officers for over 25 years."
Historically, the National Day of Prayer has been non-denominational. Former President Harry Truman signed a bill proclaiming National Day of Prayer into law on April 17, 1952, so individuals of all faiths could pray together. In 1988, President Reagan designated the first day of May to be recognized as the National Day of Prayer.
But, for a number of years, the National Day of Prayer has been all about promoting fundamentalist Christianity. Dobson’s task force seems determined to turn the half-century-old holiday into its own personal recruitment tool by proselytizing to members of the armed forces and the public in hopes of converting people to evangelical Christianity, according to task force documents posted on the group’s website.
The theme of the 57th annual event is, “Prayer! America’s Strength and Shield,” which is based on Psalm 28:7: “The Lord is my strength and shield; my heart trusts in Him and I am helped.”
Weinstein said the events scheduled for Thursday, specifically those planned by active-duty military officials, underscore the growing influence fundamentalists have inside the armed forces.
“When United States military personnel knowingly engage in deliberately public activities absolutely demanding the prerequisite of a written, official acknowledgement of acceptance and supremacy of one particular religious worldview to the total exclusion of all others, it is not merely an 'issue' or a 'problem,' Weinstein said in an interview. “Let's call it what it is; a national security threat internally to this country every bit as formidable in magnitude as those external national security threats posed by the Taliban, al Quaida, the insurrectionists and the jihadists. It's as simple and wretched as that."
In addition to the NDP Task Force events being held on military bases, there will be widespread military participation in non-military NDP events. In Washington state, military flyovers are scheduled to take place at the Calvary Chapel South ball field in Kent, according to the task force website, and the Christian radio station, Praise 106.5 FM, said the Whidbey Island Naval Station will be providing a flyover at the Skagit County event in Mount Vernon.
In order for a military flyover to take place, a form must be filled out and filed with the Pentagon describing the event and, after a review, the proposal is either approved or denied by Pentagon public affairs. The flyovers scheduled for The National Day of Prayer do not appear on the military's list of eligible flyover events, raising questions about whether the usual application process was completed and approved by the Pentagon.
Additionally, Marine color guards are scheduled to appear at the National Day of Prayer celebration in Bakersfield, Calif., and the Concert of Prayer in Wheeling, West Virginia. The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base Honor Guard is slated to appear at the "Call To The Wall" in Wheatfield, New York. The National Day of Prayer Noon Rally at the Phoenix, City Hall features the Luke Air Force Base Honor Guard, and the Fort Huachuca Select Honor Guard will appear at a service in Patagonia, Arizona.
Becky Armstrong, a spokeswoman for the National Day of Prayer task force, dismissed charges that the task force was discriminating against non-Christians.
"All Americans are free to exercise their First Amendment rights to organize events that observe the National Day of Prayer in a manner that reflects their religious perspective,” Armstrong said.
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This story was published on May 1, 2008.