Air Force removes commander's name from prayer breakfast invitation after secular group complains

Military Religious Freedom Foundation
Military Religious Freedom Foundation

A U.S. Air Force base in Illinois has removed a commander’s name from a prayer breakfast invitation in response to a complaint from one of the nation’s leading secular legal organizations. 

Last Thursday, the New Mexico-based Military Religious Freedom Foundation sent a demand letter to Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County on behalf of 15 unnamed Air Force officers, enlisted personnel and civilians.

The letter was sent to Col. Jerimiah Heathman, objecting to a mass email he sent out to those stationed at the installation. The email included an invitation to the “National Prayer Breakfast” scheduled to take place on Feb. 25 at the base’s event center. The invitation was sent under Heathman’s formal title of commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing. 

Because Heathman urged recipients to send in their RSVPs, MRFF argues that the invitation signified a “command priority.” 

MRFF also contends that Heathman violated the constitutional rights of subordinates under his command by “establishing religion” in a manner that violates the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. 

“You have additionally created a de facto ‘religious test,’” MRFF President Michael Weinstein said in the letter.

MRFF further argued that Heathman “blatantly breached the bounds” of several Department of Defense and U.S. Air Force directives, instructions and regulations. The letter cites Air Force Instruction 1-1, Section 2.12, which states that “leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for their own free exercise 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,’” the letter reads. 

Among the 15 people that MRFF claims to be representing are six self-identified Christians and nine people that hold minority faiths or no faith. 

MRFF threatened to lodge complaints with the Inspector General and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or file a federal lawsuit.

"The prayer breakfast isn't benign; it's meant to be a massive proselytizing," Weinstein told the St. Louis Dispatch. "You can't use your position as a commander to force [this]. In military culture, you're being told to go there."

As the newspaper reports, the wording of the invitation flyer posted to social media was altered on Monday. The new flier/invitation no longer includes the commander’s name.

The original flier had Heathman’s name and title at the top.

“The Commander 375th Air Mobility Wing Colonel J. Scot Heathman cordially invites you to attend The National Prayer Breakfast,” the old version of the flier reads. The new version reads, “You are cordially invited to attend The National Prayer Breakfast.” 

Although a small change, Weinstein marked it as a “win.” Weinstein sent out an email to supporters after the St. Louis Dispatch article was published, stating, “We just won!” 

MRFF is a nonprofit legal group that regularly pressures the military to end any conceived endorsement of religion. 

After MRFF pressure, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service agreed last month to stop selling “Jesus Candy” in its stores. 

In 2011, the organization pressured the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs over its participation in Samaritan’s Purse’s Operation Christmas Child charity movement to provide Christmas gifts to children in war-torn nations. 

MRFF has also pressured military services to remove Bibles placed on tables honoring prisoners of war and service members missing in action. 

Last month, MRFF criticized the U.S. government for holding a ceremony to dedicate the Bible that will be used to swear in commanders for the newly-created U.S. Space Force. The dedication took place at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in a ceremony the FFRF called a display of “fundamentalist Christian supremacy.”

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