Air Force Officer Under Investigation After Years of Keeping an Open, Highlighted Bible on His Desk August 17, 2016

Air Force Officer Under Investigation After Years of Keeping an Open, Highlighted Bible on His Desk

If a lance corporal was said to be out of line for putting unlabeled Bible verses all over her workspace, then surely having an open, highlighted Bible at your desk is even worse.

That’s what Major Steve Lewis at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs has done for the past several years, and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is now trying to put a stop to it.

Bible1PAFB

Bible2PAFB

It all began with an email from someone who deals with Lewis on a regular basis:

“It certainly gives the appearance of favoritism toward one religion,” says a Peterson military member who insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution. “I’m a Christian myself, and it’s concerning. I don’t think people should be promoted or given opportunities based on whatever [religion] they are. It should be about your performance.”

That’s right: A Christian blew the whistle on his also-Christian commanding officer.

Maybe you’re having the thought I had when I first heard about this story: What’s the big deal? As long as he’s not proselytizing, this shouldn’t be an issue, right?

Not exactly. Unlike at civilian jobs where personal religious paraphernalia might go unnoticed or unchallenged, the military is far more strict about anything that might hurt cohesion and suggest religious favoritism.

MRFF founder Mikey Weinstein explained all this in a letter sent to AFB Col. Damon Feltman:

The egregious Constitutional and DoD regulatory violations of such a brazen display of sectarian Christian triumphalism and exceptionalism have been noted by many USAF members through the years but they have not sought to officially seek redress and remediation from this outrageous display of callous and bold Christian primacy from their respective USAF chains of command due to all-too-credible fears of reprisal and retribution from same.

It is fine, of course, if he wishes to keep his Christian bible, replete with yellow-highlighted verses, in a desk or office drawer or even in a handy, nearby office bookcase but NOT open, yellow-highlighted and at the very epicenter of his USAF work desk for all of his helpless subordinates and many others to view continuously on a daily basis.

Weinstein says having this open Bible on the desk violates Air Force Instruction (AFI) 1-1, Sections 2.11 and 2.12:

Every Airman also has the right to individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs, to include conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs, unless those expressions would have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety, or mission accomplishment.

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.

That last bit is key. Military officers cannot, in any way, promote religion while on the clock. A teacher at a public high school might be able to get away with this (provided no proselytizing was occurring) but a military officer plays by different, stricter rules.

A Supreme Court case from 1974, Parker v. Levy, even said as much:

This Court has long recognized that the military is, by necessity, a specialized society separate from civilian society… While the members of the military are not excluded from the protection granted by the First Amendment, the different character of the military community and of the military mission requires a different application of those protections… The fundamental necessity for obedience, and the consequent necessity for imposition of discipline, may render permissible within the military that which would be constitutionally impermissible outside it… Speech that is protected in the civil population may nonetheless undermine the effectiveness of response to command. If it does, it is constitutionally unprotected.

So the case law and precedent are on MRFF’s side, even if their position is bound to be extremely unpopular.

Weinstein added in an email to me:

Major Steve Lewis has created an around-the-clock Christian Bible Shrine on his official USAF workstation desk that has been in prominent static display for YEARS. The pages in his open bible on his USAF desk never change, ever. Thus, it is obviously there as a religious display to promote to others his Christian faith.

In my nearly 12 minute call with the 310th Wing Commander, Colonel Feltman… he promised me that he would be open and fair in all of his dealings on this matter with MRFF and its 33 clients at Peterson AFB and Schriever AFB. We will hold him to his word. So far, MRFF has been impressed with his honesty and responsiveness.

As it stands, the Bible has been removed from Lewis’ desk as an investigation into the matter takes place.

Lewis has not yet been punished for his actions. It’s unclear if he will be. But rest assured Todd Starnes and the rest of the Always a Victim crowd are going to treat this as The Worst Example *Ever* of Christian Persecution. (In second place? Whatever they wrote about last week.)

When you read their inevitable stories, be on the lookout for any mention of the Air Force’s rulebook and how military officers are under stricter scrutiny when it comes to “religious freedom.” And ask yourself whether any of these people would be defending officers who had the Qur’an or The God Delusion opened up in the same way on their desks.

I doubt it. Starnes and others believe Christians have special rights that don’t extend to anyone else.

***Update***: Starnes has posted an article about this situation. It doesn’t include anything about the military rules. Surprise, surprise.

(Images via MRFF)

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