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Under Fire from Church-State Groups, Air Force Retreats from Evangelical Festival

The Air Force denied it was a sponsor of a Memorial Day weekend festival at Stone Mountain, Ga., honoring the military and featuring introduction of a new paperback Bible designed for military personnel published by the Southern Baptist Convention.

Holman Bible Outreach International, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources, announced plans to give away 3,000 copies of its new Holman CSB Military Bible, “designed to meet the specific needs of military personnel and was created a format that is easy to carry,” at the May 26-28 event honoring active duty and veteran U.S. troops and their families.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Featured speakers at the three-day event, expected to draw 100,000 people, included former SBC President Bobby Welch, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and author of You, The Warrior Leader.
 
LifeWay said it was sponsoring the event with the United States Air Force, Task Force Patriot <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />USA, General Motors and others. The advance press release described the Task Force Patriot Salute to the Troops as “an official U.S. Air Force 60th anniversary event.” At least one military publication, from Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, called it an official Air Force event.
 
Americans United for Separation on Church and State wrote a letter May 23 saying military involvement in the three-day event violated the Constitution and the military should not endorse or promote a festival arranged by evangelical Christians.
 
The Air Force responded with a statement saying it was “not a sponsor” of the event and was “not aware until recently of the religious connotations surrounding Task Force Patriot’s participation.”
 
After seeing the schedule, the statement said, “Air Force officials began taking steps to avoid the appearance of any endorsement or preferential treatment of any religious faith or worship service.”
 
An Air Force spokesman said in the Washington Post that at the Air Force’s request, Task Force Patriot agreed to delete all references to Air Force sponsorship and removed an “unauthorized” photograph of Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, from its Web site.
 
The military said it would continue plans to provide music, exhibits and flyovers during the Memorial Day celebration, but they would not be timed to coincide with religious services.
 
The Air Force cut back the nine flyovers it had planned early last week to two. A spokesperson for the park told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the reason the military gave her was the number of requests for flybys at other Memorial Day events around the country.
 
Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, called attempts by the military to distance itself from the controversy a “weed-whacking machination” that “knocks the weed down on Friday morning, but by Tuesday morning it’s back again.”
 
Weinstein, who sued the Air Force in 2005 claiming AirForceAcademy senior officers and cadets illegally imposed Christianity on others at the school, said his organization was preparing a comprehensive federal lawsuit against the Department of Defense for “likely countless constitutional violations” being perpetrated by Pentagon leadership.
 
Weinstein called military participation in the Stone Mountain festival a clear example of “pernicious religious predation by the U.S. military command structure.” He said his foundation was “officially” renaming the Pentagon the “Pentecostalgon.”
 
Weinstein said writing letters doesn’t go far enough to fight what he called a “tortured and twisted blending of fundamentalist, dominionist Christianity with the foundational missions of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army.”
 
“The only way to grab this thing and get rid of this unconstitutional darkness is going into federal court and ripping it out by the roots,” Weinstein said in a video clip, “and that is what we’re going to do.”
 
Weinstein put Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on notice not to destroy e-mails or letters, which he warned would be “viewed as obstruction of justice, which is a felony.”
 
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this was the fourth year for the event at Stone MountainPark, but the first year that Task Force Patriot USA has been involved.
 
A “veteran-to-veteran” outreach organization endorsed on its Web site by former SBC leader Henry Blackaby, Task Force Patriot USA began with 35 vets in 1999. Today, according to the Gwinnet Daily Post, more than 550 veterans representing 100 different churches and synagogues meet for dinner the first Thursday of every month at First Baptist Church in Lilburn, Ga. The church’s pastor, Ken Hall, was scheduled to speak at the Stone Mountain rally on Sunday.
 
Retired U.S. Army Major Jim Freeman, founder and CEO of Task Force Patriot USA, told the Gwinnett newspaper last weekend’s event wasn’t a one-shot deal. He said Salute to the Troops is on the calendar for the next 10 years and similar events are being planned in other cities.
 
Weinstein said he has no problem with anybody in the Task Force Patriot USA “celebrating their own faith or doing whatever they want to on their own time.”
 
“But when they engage the machinery of the state, that is when we have a violation of our Constitution,” he said.
 
LifeWay Christian Resources released its new military Bible May 1.
 
“For these perilous times, for the men and women who serve the cause of freedom around the world, Holman Bible Publishers is pleased to provide the entire Bible in a format that is easy to carry, and that is designed to meet the specific needs of those who serve in the most difficult of situations,” said a product description on LifeWay’s online store.
 
LifeWay has for some time carried the New Testament and Psalms customized with the particular seal of the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines and containing hymns including the “Star Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Onward Christian Soldier.”
 
Other special features in all editions, according to one on-line vendor, include the Pledge of Allegiance, plan of salvation, prayers of General George S. Patton and President George Washington and quotes from current Commander in Chief President George W. Bush.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.