Battle Continues Over Religious Freedom at Military Base

Soldier’s advocacy group says chaplain’s article about faith is offensive

U.S. Air Force personnel salute as aircraft are arrayed for display for a change of command ceremony held in Hangar 20 on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson / AP

A military servicemen advocacy group is requesting more information about a military base’s decision to republish a chaplain’s article on faith that some servicemen found offensive.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which seeks to counter religious influences in the military, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on Aug. 15 seeking documents surrounding the base command’s decision. The request is the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute with the base over the proper place of religion in the military.

Lt. Col. Kenneth Reyes, chaplain of the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) in Anchorage, Alaska, wrote an article in July titled "‘No atheists in foxholes’: Chaplains gave all in World War II."

Reyes described the historical origin of the phrase "There is no such thing as an atheist in a fox hole" in order to discuss faith and its place in soldiers’ lives. Reyes noted that life or death experiences cause people to move both toward and away from faith.

Military Religious Freedom Foundation wrote to the base commander, Col. Brian Duffy, complaining about the article on behalf of 42 servicemen at the base soon after its publication.

The foundation argued that Reyes had violated military regulations and that it was disrespecting some servicemen.

"We demand that appropriate actions be taken to remove this article from JBER's official website and that punitive measures and negative counseling be produced for all those involved in the production, approval, and dissemination of Lt. Col. Reyes' message of religious supremacy and disrespect towards the non-religious," the group wrote.

The next day, the base removed the article from the website. The foundation hailed the decision as "Yet Another Swift MRFF Victory."

"This article contained the redundant use of the bigoted, religious supremacist phrase, ‘no atheists in foxholes,’ and defiled the dignity of service members by telling them that regardless of their personally held philosophical beliefs they must have faith," the group said in a statement.

However, the base only temporarily removed the piece to review military policy because the foundation had cited military regulations in its complaint, a base spokeswoman said.

The base announced on its Facebook page on Aug. 8 that it was reposting the article on a new "Chaplain’s Corner" webpage along with a disclaimer that the views in the article do not represent the views of the military. A link to the new "Chaplain’s Corner" is on the home page of the base’s website, and the articles will continue to run in the base’s print newspaper, the Arctic Warrior.

"We believe this new approach, taken in consultation with our higher headquarters, appropriately balances constitutional protections for an individual's free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs with the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion," Duffy said in the statement.

Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s president Mikey Weinstein decried the base’s decision and pledged further action.

"This is hardly over. It has just begun," Weinstein said.

Weinstein compared the phrase "no atheists in foxholes" to using the "N-word" for black people or the "C-word" for women.

"Just using the phrase … that was the most vile, evil, base comment you could make," he said.

The context of the article did not reduce the offense, Weinstein said, arguing that the article was "marginalizing" and "dehumanizing."

"Even if you try to marry it to something historical, it’s not ok," he said. He compared the article’s offense to the offense given by the 1940s big band song "Chattanooga Choo Choo," which has a line referring to a shoeshine man, most of whom were black, as "boy."

Weinstein pledged to uncover the discussions behind the decision to repost the article.

"We want to see who spoke to whom," he said. "We clearly want to see everything that’s out there, and we will assess where to go from there."

"This was the Air Force caving in to pernicious, fundamentalist Christian pressure," Weinstein, who himself went to the Air Force Academy, said.

Duffy defended his decision to repost the article in comments provided to the Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday.

"Our revised ‘Chaplain's Corner’ includes commentaries designed to enhance the spiritual resilience and wellness of our community of active duty, Department of Defense civilians, family members, and retirees as part of the Air Force and Army Comprehensive Fitness programs," Duffy said.

Chaplain Reyes declined to comment for this article.