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Air Force officer faces backlash for leading worship services from apartment balcony

Air Force officer faces backlash for leading worship services from apartment balcony

Lt. Col. David McGraw leads a Christian worship service at the Kelley Barracks of U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart, Germany. | Screenshot: YouTube/MikeyMRFF

UPDATE: 2 p.m. ET May 8: U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. David McGraw apologized to residents of Kelley Barracks at U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart, Germany, for holding Sunday worship services from his military housing balcony over the past eight weeks following a complaint from some service members to the secular group, Military Religious Freedom Foundation. 

In a letter sent to residents Friday and viewed by The Christian Post, McGraw vowed to move his services to another location. He said the goal of the weekly services, which began in March, was not to “deface the name of Christ by inflicting any adversity on those families around us.” 

“We solely sought to bless those families who could not worship together in Christ with an opportunity to sing praises and worship amidst the COVID realities we are living with, together,” McGraw wrote in the letter. “Our desire is to bless the families on Kelley Barracks knowing the struggles everyone of us face on a ‘normal’ day with work, family, and life.” 

Original:

A leading church-state separation legal group is calling on the commander of a U.S. Army base in Germany to take action against a field-grade Air Force officer who has been leading Christian worship services from the balcony of his military housing apartment.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation sent a letter on Tuesday to Col. Jason W. Condrey, the commander of U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart, calling for disciplinary measures to be taken against Lt. Col. David McGraw. 

MRFF, which advocates for a strict separation of church and state, says it's representing 28 military complainants (21 of which are Christian) who object to McGraw’s “Sunday Christian Porch Preaching” at the Kelley Barracks, an apartment complex that houses mostly military families with four kids of more. 

According to an email sent to MRFF by a concerned resident of the apartment complex, on March 15, McGraw began hosting Sunday services for the two apartment buildings that overlook the barracks playground. For the past eight weeks, the email explains, McGraw’s services have drawn more attendees and have increased in duration. 

The email says song sheets for the weekly services have for the past four weeks been distributed to the doorsteps of all the apartments in the buildings. 

“At four weeks into this, the song and scripture flyers are now being placed on individual doorsteps of residents to join in to what is essentially an evangelical worship service that is happening outside of the multitude of virtual services being hosted by the Military Chaplains,” the email told MRFF. 

The concerned resident told MRFF that as the services have happened unabated for the past eight weeks. The resident fears there could be “no end in sight.”

“This has also become a draw for people that are missing in-person worship service, so there are more than just residents of our housing community showing up,” the resident explained. “There are people now standing around in between the buildings to participate in the service. This is very much against the social distancing guidelines set forth for military members and their families.”

A concerned resident of Kelley Barracks who spoke with The Christian Post on the condition of anonymity after being connected through MRFF said McGraw’s services are now averaging about 30 minutes in length. 

“There is now prelude music that goes on for 15 minutes prior to the service starting,” the resident said. “It started off with a couple of songs off the balcony and it turned into a full sermon. The biggest concern is that while we do have our faith, we are also required to be a military community.” 

“Stuttgart is on a significant lockdown. We had one of the highest numbers of positive [coronaviurs] cases in all of the European bases including Italy,” the resident added. “I think we hit over 100 cases at one point in time. We must be a community, especially here on a base like this where there is a large religious component. We try to be delicate about stepping one another’s toes.”

The resident argues that while it’s perfectly fine to host a Bible study in one’s home, “you should not be able to hold others hostage and disallow their quiet enjoyment in their own homes.”

“They absolutely know that this is something that would not be OK if someone used the architectural acoustics to announce the Call to Prayer of those in the Muslim faith,” the resident wrote in the email. 

According to the email sent to MRFF, residents who oppose the worship services contacted the legal group because the officers to whom they are supposed to report their concerns to are also participating in the services. 

“There is a system set up that has a building manager for each military apartment building,” the email says. 

“This military person is the gobetween for the residents and the Military Housing Office that oversees the rules and regulations put forth for the residents. These building managers are active participants in this forced worship service, closing that line of communication for fear of retribution. The Military Police are unwilling to attend to any noise complaints outside of the standard quiet hours. There is no way to file an anonymous complaint that does not come back in retaliation. I could use your help in any way that you can provide.”

In his letter to Condrey, MRFF President Mikey Weinstein argued that the actions of McGraw and the chaplains assisting him in holding these services is unconstitutional and a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment barring a government establishment of religion. 

Also, Weinstein contends that their actions violate “a plethora” of U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Air Force directives, instructions, and regulations. Their actions also, Weinstein contends, violates the core values of the U.S. Army and Air Force. 

Weinstein argued that McGraw, who outranks most of the residents at the barracks, is “proselytizing his particularly favored version of the Christian faith to an absolutely captive audience.” 

U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart Director of Public Relations Lawrence Reilly told CP Post in a statement that they are "taking appropriate measures to ensure good order and discipline and the rights of all community members."

"Our duty is to protect this community, to include everyone’s individual rights," Reilly explained. 

Mike Berry, General Counsel for the First Liberty Institute, a legal nonprofit that often defends the First Amendment rights of military service members, told CP that McGraw did not “forfeit his constitutional rights when he joined the military.”

“Of course, it is perfectly legal for a service member to sing worship songs, read from the Bible and share the Good News with friends and neighbors,” he told CP in a statement. 

Berry cited the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit’s 1984 ruling in Katcoff v. Marsh that held that “the Constitution obligates Congress to provide for the free exercise of religion by military personnel.”

“And beyond that, federal laws and military regulations make clear that service members can discuss and even share their faith with one another,” he said.

“If it is legal for service members to discuss sports, politics, or any other topic, then it is also legal for service members to discuss religion,” Berry, a former Marine, added. “The same goes for distributing flyers. The Constitution is clear that religion cannot be treated less favorably than non-religious topics. To do so would amount to unconstitutional discrimination.”

In an email to Weinstein on Tuesday, Condrey explained that he would want the “opportunity to resolve this directly with any/all of your clients.”

“To address their concerns of reprisal/revenge, I invite them to my office or a location of their choosing in civilian clothes and will guarantee no requests for name, rank, unit, address, or any information that could be used to identify them,” the commander wrote. “I want our family housing residents to feel at home in their homes.”

In response,  Weinstein said that the MRFF clients “want to wait to make a decision about meeting with you until this coming Sunday the 10th of May” to see if Condrey will stop McGraw’s from holding another service. 

“In short, Colonel Condrey, Lt. Col. McGraw’s ‘Sunday Christian Porch Preachin’ is completely violating the time, place, and manner restrictions of the aforementioned bodies of foundational American law, the DoD regulatory paradigm and the armed forces’ criminal justice system,” Weinstein wrote in his letter. 

Since McGraw is a field-grade officer, Weinstein contends that he has violated Air Force Instruction 1-1, Section 2.12 stating that “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," the instruction states. 

Weinstein wrote in his letter that AFI 1-1 is "a directive" as opposed to being "merely advisory.” 

“Thus, as an Air Force regulation, its violation, as in the instant matter via the constitutionally odious ‘Sunday Christian porch preaching’ by Lt. Col. McGraw, means that these actions may be prosecuted as a crime under the UCMJ," Weinstein contends. 

While MRFF’s letter doesn’t state specifically what kind of disciplinary action McGraw and those helping him host the services should be subject to, Weinstein told CP in a phone interview that he believes McGraw should be court-martialed. 

In his letter to Condrey, Weinstein cited the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case of Parker v. Levy, which found that First Amendment rights can be applied differently in the context of military personnel. 

“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,” the ruling states. “Speech that is protected in the civil population may nonetheless undermine the effectiveness of response to command. If it does, it is constitutionally unprotected.”

Berry said he is not sure how McGraw’s command will respond but offered free legal representation if McGraw faces any disciplinary action. 

“Lately, we’ve observed a disturbing trend of military commanders raising the white flag of surrender every time the MRFF complains,” Berry said.   

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