More than 40 people at Maxwell Air Force Base contacted the foundation after Col. Erik Shafa, commander of the 42nd Air Base Wing, used his commander's box to send a message to everyone in the wing, inviting them to the Feb. 23 Maxwell Air Force Base National Prayer Breakfast.
On behalf of those clients, Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, filed a third-party complaint with the 42nd Air Base Wing IG, claiming the invite constituted a clear violation of Air Force Instruction 1-1, Section 2.12, Balance of Free Exercise of Religion and Establishment Clause.
It states: "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.
Because the wing IG reports to Shafa, the complaint was later transferred to the Air University IG on Maxwell.
One of the foundation's clients, a former airman and now an Air Force civilian on base, said Shafa's message was "terrible for morale."
"What do you do when you are in the military and your commander says, 'hey, I invite you to this thing?' ... Well, the implication is that you go. It's not one of those invitations that says, if you would like to or perhaps if you are interested. It's very much giving the implication that you are expected to participate or at least understand that he thinks its important and that's where he stands on the issue."
The civilian who spoke with Air Force Times identifies as an atheist, but Weinstein said the people who brought complaints to his organization about the prayer breakfast invite included Air Force officers, enlisted personnel, civilians, Air University students and permanent party.
"Our 43 MRFF clients come from the Protestant, Roman Catholic, Islamic and Jewish faith traditions, as well as those MRFF clients who identify as atheist, agnostics, secularist and humanists," he said.
Michael Ritz, chief of media operations at Maxwell, said that "per standard procedures the inspector general does not identify complaints or complainants. However, all IG complaints are taken seriously and are investigated with the utmost care, rigor and protection of information."
He did acknowledge, however, that Weinstein had corresponded with 42nd Air Base Wing leadership to express his dissatisfaction with the invite.
"The Air Force places the highest value on the rights of its personnel in matters of religion and facilitates the free exercise of religion by its members," Ritz said. "Our airmen are sworn to protect our rights and liberties as Americans, including the right of all airmen to practice their religious faith or to practice no faith at all."
He noted that "the National Prayer Breakfast is a historical, interfaith and clearly voluntary event, which has been observed across the U.S. government since 1953."
The civilian complainant argued that the voluntary nature of the Maxwell event would have been much more clear if the invite had come from the base chaplains, who are not in the chain of command, rather than the commander.
Those not inclined to attend the event worry that their ability to advance in rank will be affected, and that they won't get opportunities to excel and stand out, the civilian said.
"I don't think you will be punished if you are not there, but I think it is implicit that if you don't support this type of event you won't ever become part of the inner circle," the civilian said.