An advocacy group led by a high-profile lawyer has offered to back Wright-Patterson Air Force Base after a complaint was filed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation over a base-wide email inviting employees to a simulcast of a “faith-based” leadership summit this week.
The American Center for Law & Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based group led by Jay Alan Sekulow, a private attorney who has represented President Donald Trump in broadcast and media interviews recently, is the chief counsel of the group. Sekulow was one of two lawyers who signed an Aug. 7 letter to base commander Col. Bradley McDonald offering legal assistance to fight the complaint.
MRFF president and founder Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein had demanded an investigation into the base wide email sent last month and punishment for those who sent it, contending it ran afoul of Air Force regulations and should have been sent only to “base personnel on religious index email lists” that represent Protestant-affiliated “contemporary, gospel and community” worship groups.
He also pressed base leaders on whether personnel would attend the simulcast Aug. 10-11 during duty hours at taxpayer expense or on their own time.
“There’s over 1,000 (Department of Defense) installations all over the world and Wright-Patterson is one of the worst when it comes to violating the separation of church and state,” he said.
The ACLJ said the email did not violate Air Force regulations, as the MRFF has contended, and the exercise of religion in the military was protected under the Constitution.
In the ACLJ letter to McDonald, Sekulow and fellow attorney Robert W. “Skip” Ash argued the MRFF’s and Weinstein’s allegations were “baseless” and Wright-Patterson was under “no obligation whatsoever” to conduct an investigation or respond to Weinstein or his group.
“The MRFF and its allies want to remove all semblance of religious expression from the public sphere in the military,” the ACLJ letter said in part. ”…. Mr. Weinstein is known for making bombastic, over-the-top views about persons of whatever religious stripe who disagree with his views and his personal ideas on what constitutes acceptable speech and conduct under the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
Representatives in both organizations have strongly criticized the other for its stand on religious freedom in the military.
An ACLJ spokesman referred a request for comment Friday to a blog posted by Ash. In the blog, Ash further disputes the MRFF’s contention the emailed invitation was a misstep by base officials.
“What is actually gone here is any semblance of reason and logic in this matter on the part of Weinstein and MRFF,” Ash wrote.
Weinstein, who called the ACLJ’s criticisms “laughable,” said most of the membership of the New Mexico-based MRFF is Christian, but includes those of other faiths or no faith. “Our foundation, our job is to be the demanders of the commander and you can’t do that quietly,” he said.
The Global Leadership Summit was to be simulcast at a religious chapel education facility in an off-base Wright-Patterson housing area on Aug. 10-11, officials said. The Willow Creek Association, affiliated with the Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, was to host the summit set to be simulcast to more than 600 locations. The summit included both faith-based and other high-profile speakers outside the religious world, an event website showed.
The base-wide email invitation was signed “Your W-P Chapel Team.”
A Wright-Patterson spokeswoman said the July 17 emailed invitation was “consistent with the Chaplain Corps’ mission.”
“Wright Patterson places a high value on the rights of Air Force members to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all,” base spokeswoman Marie Vanover said in the statement. “The email advertising this event was consistent with the Chaplain Corps’ mission. For matters of leave, Air Force personnel follow Air Force guidance and instructions.”
Base officials would not comment further Friday.
The MRFF will continue to seek answers through a Freedom of Information Act request filed with Wright-Patterson, said Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer.
“This is a typical response that we would see that they are not addressing any of the substantive violations,” he said. “… This is the response we expected. It’s a nothing burger.”
Weinstein, who said 42 mostly Christian military and civilian personnel at Wright-Patterson objected to the email invitation, vowed the MRFF would take the FOIA request to court if necessary.
“It’s rock and roll, but it’s hardly over,” he said. “They will have to respond to the FOIA.”
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