It's difficult to decide who's happier with the latest The U.S. Air Force decision endorsing the "Have a Blessed Day" greeting by armed Air Force sentries at its gates at Robins AFB, Georgia. The Dominionist Christians are giggling at their Wednesday evening bible studies thinking that they've finally nosed their camel under the tent and can use their Christian code to bless and evangelize the unwitting and the subordinate. The Air Force leadership is basking in what they see as a procedurally defensible "victory" over me and the MRFF and our 13 USAF officer, NCO and civilian clients at Robins (9 of whom are fully practicing Christians). They are happily noting that there's no Air Force Instruction VIOLATED by the use of the phrase—so "WE WIN", gleefully squeals the Air Force and its fundamentalist Christian puppeteers!
However, the smoking lamp (or is it, the "BS lamp") has been lit on this stinking travesty and you don't need to be a Constitutional scholar (or rocket scientist) to see the Mach 3 hypocrisy here. The Air Force is busy citing their "AFI" for not specifically forbidding the greeting. (Note: AFI stands for Air Force Instruction—we don't call them ‘regulations' any more in this kinder, gentler, more developmental time). What they don't mention is that the AFI also doesn't specifically prohibit sentries from saying "Namaste", "Hail Satan", "Have a godless day" or "Allahu-Akbar" either. The AFI simply is not an ultimately dispositive or controlling authority to quote in opposition to armed, uniformed, USAF sentries offering "Have a blessed day" or any other non-mission-oriented statement. There still exists, however, remarkably compelling arguments that lead any reasonable and rational supporter and defender of the Constitution to wonder why the Air Force would allow, much less promulgate, the belief that such willful stupidity is the right thing to do. Let's look at the situation more closely.
Parker vs. Levy: Military Entry Gates are Not Free Speech Zones
For purposes of the following telling argument ONLY, let's momentarily stipulate that the First Amendment neither forbids (as violating freedom of religion) nor protects (as freedom of speech or religious expression) USAF gate sentries from saying, "Have a blessed day," to those requesting entry onto the installation. But, and this is a solar system-sized BUT, such high security entry gates at a U.S. military installation are NOT free speech zones where armed security forces may engage in unconstrained freedom of speech. Everyone who has ever worn a uniform understands that commanders (at the Wing, Base, Group, Squadron, and even lower levels) are fully entitled to restrict speech by sentries and others, provided these directions are required to satisfy a legitimate military purpose.
The seminal 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case of Parker vs. Levy is absolutely, unequivocally on point here. Justice William Rehnquist, noted uber-conservative, penned the majority opinion there to boot! Indeed, the compelling governmental interest for all matters of First Amendment and other Constitutional rights afforded to military members is NOT to ensure that their Constitutional rights are identical to their civilian counterparts. Quite on the contrary, the compelling governmental interest here is ONLY to maximize unit cohesion, military readiness, mission accomplishment, good order, moral and discipline. In other words, U.S. armed forces members will have MANY of their Constitutional rights severely curtailed due to the immediate foregoing need to further the military mission.
So, what is the military purpose for placing USAF Security Forces at installation gates? Do they serve solely as sentries safeguarding base personnel and equipment? No. They also verify that those entering the base have a valid ID card and that the person(s) and vehicle do not represent a threat to the security of the installation. After all, they're called USAF "Security Forces" for a reason. Their MILITARY mission is not to provide a pseudo, one-size-fits-all", faith blessing" to persons requesting to enter the base. They return the ID card with a salute (for officers) or a thank you (for enlisted, civilians, contractors, and dependents) – both acts sufficient to satisfy their military duty. After that, their SOLE attention should return to professionally surveilling for threats to the installation.
Adding more to the entry process only detracts from the sentry's attention to their exclusive and solitary duty to watch for threats, but also suggests that the sentry's discipline is NOT singularly dedicated to the mission—he or she is instead distracted by the additional commission of providing "blessings". Therefore, and this is the REALLY important part that should be obvious to commanders and sentries who offer the salutation, "Have a blessed day," conveys that they are NOT fully engaged performing their military duty. They lack the individual, squadron, group and wing military discipline their solemn duty requires of them and, thus, put all at terrible risk. How should a top military commander handle this situation? Simple. They should simply forbid any salutations or greetings beyond what objectively advances their critical mission of security enforcement. If someone entering the base feels like they need a "blessing" to get through their day—and it MUST be delivered by a paid, ranked and uniformed member of the United States military, then they should go to the chaplains' offices.
USAF is Not a Retail Merchant
Remember, the U.S. Air Force is NOT Wal-Mart. Sure, they both wear mostly blue. But, if Wal-Mart, Hobby Lobby or Chic-Fil-A may find it acceptable or beneficial for their employees to wish departing customers, "A blessed day," let's recall that Wal-Mart, Hobby Lobby or Chic-Fil-A cashiers have NOT sworn an oath to the U.S. Constitution and are not equipped with lethal side arms, military uniforms and automatic weapons (in most States, that is). They are not in the business of training combat ready forces and defending America's national security both domestically and abroad. However, the Air Force IS dedicated to that mission, as are the Army, Navy, and the Marine Corps.
Gate sentries and other combatants, as a matter of military doctrine state, "We train as we fight." Sentries in combat theaters such as Afghanistan (e,g., Bagram Air Base) or at nuclear launch and/or storage areas do not offer "Have a blessed day" to persons entering the installation or the weapons storage area. Neither should they do so at any other installations in the United States unless they are addressing commanders that ordered them to use such greetings. I'm certain—based upon my extensive experience and that of dozens of senior, active duty officers who have contacted me on this very same subject—that sentries do not greet commanders and other senior officers with "Have a blessed day" as they enter the base because they know that the commander would question the propriety and focus of the sentry doing so. Therefore why should the same sentries be authorized, encouraged, and NOT forbidden from offering the very same "faith blessing" to lesser ranked military members and civilians?
The contrary argument is where this issue really becomes illuminating—and where the AFIs (specifically AFI 1-1) become applicable. Dominionist Christians claim that it is unlawful to restrict a sentry's right to say "Have a Blessed Day" on the basis of this being a protected religious freedom. They really can't have it both ways, though. If it's religious speech, then they've stepped over the line and violated the AFI, inserting religious fervor and its inherent bias and propensity for division into their role as assurers for base security. Presuming that not ALL that enter a military base are necessarily Christians who feel the need to be blessed or evangelized by a uniformed someone with a loaded weapon asking for two forms of ID, they have just created the sense of exclusiveness that the Secretary of the Air Force, The Honorable Deborah Lee James, has stated she's furiously battling—just in the last two weeks issuing edicts and introducing programs aimed at increasing Air Force diversity and inclusion.
The Unconstitutional Influence of Fundamentalist Christian Extremists
I can't emphasize this point enough. We live in a hyper-dangerous world where there are daily threats to the security of our military personnel, our bases and posts, our people, and our nation. Air Force leadership, as well as Congress (including the fundamentalist Christian Congressional Prayer Caucus, too) should be solely concerned about the military sentry's primary duty and should insist that her or his speech supports military necessity and absolutely NOTHING more. Anything "more" detracts from the mission. Period! Likewise, Air Force leadership should not be concerned about who (including Congress) might criticize their commanders for insisting on military discipline—those complaints ring hollow. Let's not surrender the Air Force's prime directive to political and religious correctness in order to please (1) the religious extremists who pollute the Congressional Prayer Caucus; (2) outside non-military, fundamentalist Christian, parachurch organizations attempting to boost their influence within the military; or (3) misguided local and lower level commanders who illegally and irresponsibly and DANGEROUSLY place supposed obligation to their sectarian Christian church above their SWORN obligation to the Constitution.
When it comes down to what military sentries should be saying to those attempting entry to armed forces installations, the optimization of the security mission is ALL that matters and, truly, less said is more impactful to achieve that very mission.
Is this lesson so hard to understand?
It sure wasn't to the Robins AFB Security Forces Squadron Commander who agreed in about 3 minutes with the demands I made directly to him on behalf of MRFF's 13 Air Force clients to have his gate guards cease and desist from saying "Have a blessed day".
The cognizant USAF COMMANDER knew precisely what to do. His decision ought to be lauded and not denigrated by the forces of fundamentalist Christian tyranny both within and outside of the Department of Defense.
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Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein, Esq. is founder and president of the 7-time Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), an honor graduate of the Air Force Academy, and a former J.A.G. in the U.S. Air Force. He served as a White House counsel in the Reagan Administration and as the Committee Management Officer of the "Iran-Contra" Investigation. He is also the former General Counsel to H. Ross Perot and Perot Systems Corporation. His two sons, daughter-in-law, son-in law, and brother-in-law are also graduates of USAFA. In December 2012, Defense News named Mikey one of the 100 Most Influential People in U.S. Defense. He is the author of "With God On Our Side" (2006, St. Martin's Press) and "No Snowflake in an Avalanche" (2012, Vireo).