An advocacy group is calling for an investigation into the commander of Edwards Air Force Base in California over allegations that he has violated U.S. Defense Department policies on religious proselytizing.
Earlier this week, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, or MRFF, demanded that Defense Secretary James Mattis conduct a “full and vigorous investigation” of Air Force Brig. Gen. E. John Teichert, according to a copy of the letter provided to Air Force Times.
The MRFF seeks to maintain the separation of church and state in the U.S. military, according to the group’s leader, Mikey Weinstein.
The issue in the letter stems from Teichert’s website: Prayer at Lunchtime for the United States.
There, Teichert wrote that his website is designed to “encourage Bible-believing Americans to take time to specifically pray for our nation at lunchtime every day.”
In the 22-page letter to Mattis, the MRFF’s lawyers are asking that the military investigate Teichert’s conduct to determine whether the website violates Air Force Instruction 1-1, Paragraph 2.12.
“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," the AFI reads. "They must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief, or absence of belief.”
The foundation reported that it conducted a preliminary investigation on behalf of clients of theirs at Edwards who complained about the issue.
“MRFF brings this formal complaint on behalf of 41 of those clients (32 self-identifying as Christian) — many of whom are in mortal fear of retaliation should they be personally identified in this matter," the letter reads.
While Defense Department policies do prohibit proselytizing, they don’t prevent service members from engaging in their religious beliefs on their own time.
And that’s the issue at hand here, according to retired Army Col. Phil Wright, the executive director of Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, a group that works to secure the religious liberties of military chaplains and those whom they serve.
“One of [Weinstein’s] attacks is that [Teichert] is proselytizing, forcing his religion onto someone ... but you have to go to the website, no one is forced to go and you can turn it off at any moment,” Wright said.
Also at issue is whether Teichert’s behavior is ever conducted while in uniform and claiming to represent the U.S. Air Force.
“This general, on his own time, as an expression of his faith, with a non-military website from a non-military computer can state his beliefs,” Wright said.
The Air Force has ruled that one of its commanders had a right to exercise his religious beliefs when he declined to sign a certificate of appreciation for the same-sex spouse of an airman under his command.
A similar issue, he said, would be if a service member volunteered for a political campaign. That’s permissible, but the service member cannot advocate for a political candidate while in uniform, or while claiming to represent the military in any way.
“If you got those under your command in formation, and passed out campaign literature and said you wanted them to vote, then you’ve crossed the line,” Wright said. “And I think that would be the same if you forced airmen to go to church, to pray or read the Bible.”
In the MRFF’s letter, the foundation’s lawyer accused Teichert of “using both his military rank as well as his position and status as an Air Force officer to aggressively promote his brand of religion — clearly giving the appearance if not outright impression that he, in his official status, is endorsing if not outright proselytizing."
On the website in question, Teichert only goes by his first name, John. However, he does identify himself as “an active duty brigadier general who has served in the United States Air Force since 1994, and who was saved by grace through faith in Christ in 2004.”
The website’s biography page does, however, provide a link to a 2014 interview that uses Teichert’s full name and features a photo of Teichert in uniform. In response to the interviewer’s questions, Teichert not only talks about his religious beliefs but also his service in the Air Force.
Weinstein and the MRFF argue that in his online postings, Teichert “has denigrated LGBT individuals, slammed American society at large, and, of course, delivered election voting mandate directives wherein he has effusively urged that only his type of approved Christian should ever be elected to American public office.”