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Watchdog Group Wants Air Force to Pull 'Jesus' Video

(US Air Force photo/Deana Heitzman)
(US Air Force photo/Deana Heitzman)

The head of a watchdog group says the major general who heads up the Air Force Recruiting Service has reneged on a promise to quickly remove a video in which a Protestant chaplain touts his role as a minister who brought someone to Christ during a deployment to Iraq.

In the 2-1/2 minute video, Chaplain and Air Force Capt. Christian Williams talks about the chaplaincy being "one of the most rewarding ministries in the world," serving a pluralistic environment of airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines of different backgrounds and cultures.

Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation said the video is perfectly fine until it hits the two-minute mark, when Williams departs from talking about serving and counseling troops to celebrating successfully bringing a female airman to Jesus.

"Before I left Iraq," Williams says in the video, "she told me that 'as a result of the example I saw you set ... I have accepted Christ as my personal lord and savior.' You can't put a price tag on that."

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Weinstein claims the anecdote violates the establishment clause of the US Constitution and also the letter of Air Force Instruction 1-1, which states that leaders "at all levels ... must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion."

Air Force Headquarters at the Pentagon told Military.com it does not see a problem with Williams' comments.

"The Air Force Chaplain Corps' mission is to provide for the spiritual needs of airmen," spokeswoman Rose Richeson said. "Air Force chaplains are ready to support airmen facing the challenges and stressors inherent in deployed and home environments.

"Chaplains being available to airmen for spiritual support, and sharing these experiences in their official capacity, does not violate the establishment clause or Air Force regulations," she said.

Other videos on the recruiting site highlight chaplains of various faiths talking about their work as well, including Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim. But none of these discuss witnessing their faith to service members or converting anyone to the religion.

Weinstein said he complained of the video in January to Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.

He said Harencak responded to his email, saying that the video was five years old and that it -- along with other videos on the site -- is to be taken down by the end of February.

"We will accelerate the removal of this one," Harencak said in the email, a copy of which Weinstein provided to Military.com.

But Harencak spokeswoman Annette Crawford told Military.com on Monday that the general "did not make any specific commitments to Mr. Weinstein regarding the video and did not address the substance of Mr. Weinstein's complaint.

"Maj. Gen. Harencak did tell Mr. Weinstein the video was five years old and due to be replaced soon" as part of an overhaul of the website, Crawford said. "We currently don't have an exact timeline of when that will happen, but we believe the transition will be complete by this summer."

Weinstein expressed shock that Harencak is now claiming he did not commit to taking down the video quickly only last month.

Weinstein said he has had a number of dealings with Harencak in the past when these kinds of issues have come up, and that the general has always addressed them expeditiously and fairly. He said he had agreed not to go public about the video if the general removed it. For Harencak's spokeswoman to now say the general did not address his complaint about the video is untrue, he said.

"He absolutely addressed the substance of our complaint, and we accepted [his response] as an official assurance by thanking him," Weinstein said. "If something changed in the meantime, he should have gotten back to me and explained."

Michael Berry, senior counsel and director of military affairs for the First Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, said he has seen the video but does not see any conflict with Air Force regulations or the Constitution.

The Pentagon has previously said that service members "can share their faith (evangelize), but must not force unwanted, intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith or no faith to one's beliefs (proselytization).

"So it depends on how one defines 'proselytizing'," Berry wrote in an email to Military.com. "The dictionary defines it as 'persuading or attempting to persuade one to join a religion, cause, or group.' Ironically, 'evangelize' is listed as a synonym."

Berry said that service members of all faiths are absolutely permitted to share their religious beliefs.

"That is a bedrock principle of religious freedom for which First Liberty Institute fights," he said. "In the Air Force recruiting video, the young airman approached the chaplain and explained that it was his leadership by example that led to her religious conversion. That is precisely the kind of character our military needs in its chaplains, and it's the type of religious expression Congress has taken great steps to protect."

--Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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