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Freedom of religion vs. freedom from religion

May. 3, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Mikey Weinstein, Michael L. Weinstein
The Defense Department is caught in the middle of a tit-for-tat fight between Mikey Weinstein (pictured), the former Air Force officer and lawyer at the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and retired Army Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, a senior official with the conservative Family Research Council. Weinstein is shown in an October 2005 photo. (File photo/The Associated Press)
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Call it freedom of religion vs. freedom from religion: The Defense Department was engulfed in a firestorm over religious expression last week, caught in the middle of a tit-for-tat fight between Mikey Weinstein, the former Air Force officer and lawyer at the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and retired Army Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, a senior official with the conservative Family Research Council.

Weinstein met with Air Force officials April 24demanding that the Air Force take stiffer action to stop the intrusion of religion in the work place. The only way to do that, he contends, is to slap offenders with nonjudicial and judicial punishment — including courts-martial.

That was enough to light up the opposition. The Family Research Council launched a petition April 29 imploring Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to “resist the demands of anti-Christian activists who are calling for a court-martial order upon chaplains and service members who share their faith.”

Within days nearly 130,000 people had signed on.

The showdown brought to a head a long-simmering debate over the limits of religious expression in the ranks. It pitted two former officers who personally symbolize that debate: Weinstein is a well-known and relentless critic of any whiff of what some would consider proselytizing in the military. Boykin, when he was in uniform, gained notoriety in 2003 when he seemed to cast the war on terrorism in religious terms, referring to Allah — Islam’s word for God — as “an idol.”

The 130,000 signatures in three days reflected the reach of the council, a Washington-based, conservative Christian organization, as well as the passions at play.

“We want to see a statement from [DoD] that makes it very clear that they gave no assurances about prosecuting through court-martial people of the Christian faith, or any other faith, for openly expressing their beliefs,” said Boykin, executive vice president of the FRC.

DoD has a long-standing policy against forcing one’s religious views on others while in uniform or discriminating against troops for their religious — or nonreligious — beliefs. Commanders to decide whether to punish troops who violate the ban, said DoD spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen.

Weinstein’s meeting with Air Force officials included the judge advocate general, Lt. Gen. Richard Harding and some of his staff, said Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley.

“At Mr. Weinstein’s request, several Air Force officials met with him and two other members of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to discuss his concerns,” Tingley said. “He’s not a consultant for the Air Force, nor did we consult with him on Air Force policy on religious tolerance.”

There is no new regulation in the works, she said.

However, the meeting came just as the Air Force was about to distribute its new pocket-sized “Blue Book,” a compilation of regulations on appearance, conduct and work environment. It includes a section that restates a 2011 servicewide memo directing leaders to balance constitutional protections on individual exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional ban on governmental establishment of religion.

Failure to comply with any of the regulations — as with all military orders — is punishable under the UCMJ.

Weinstein said the only way to stop the intrusion of religion in the workplace is to slap offenders with nonjudicial and judicial punishment. “This little book is not going to solve the problem,” he said. “We need people to understand the boundaries. People are violating it all over the place, and ... they don’t want to do anything about it.”

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