The commander of a support squadron at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, told the unit's airmen and civilian employs Tuesday that an evangelical group's email soliciting them to help with a Christmas charity was "not sent at my direction and is not endorsed in any way by me or any level of command."
Lt. Col. Donald Tasker, commander of the 436th Force Support Squadron, issued his statement in a squadron-wide email following a review of the charity group's solicitation for volunteers by the 436th Airlift Wing Commander Col. Michael W. Grismer Jr.
Military.com was provided a copy of the squadron leader's email by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which threatened court action against the Air Force unless the command disavowed endorsement of the event.
Neither Tasker, Grismer nor Col. Donna Pike, 436th Mission Support Group commander, responded to Military.com's request late Tuesday to confirm the email sent to MRFF President Mikey Weinstein.
The charity group's email was forwarded to everyone in the squadron on Oct. 14 by Tasker's secretary, Valencia Branch. The email sought volunteers to help pack more than 5,000 gift boxes that would be sent to "children in desperate situations [to show] that God loves and values them."
"Many have never heard of God's incredible Gift of Salvation though His Son," the email stated.
Weinstein said his group got involved after 14 squadron members complained of the solicitation for the Operation Christmas Child campaign.
Grismer told Military.com in an earlier email that he was investigating the incident.
Weinstein said he was pleased with the quick response senior leaders at Dover and at the Pentagon had to the complaint.
"Our clients are delighted that this is a total victory. But it's not a victory for anything other than the U.S. Constitution and the Air Force doing the right thing," Weinstein said.
Weinstein said the clients, most of them Christian, feared retaliation if they took their complaints up the chain of command, and so contacted his organization.
Weinstein said the commander's statement satisfies his clients' demand for an apology and public disavowal of any endorsement of the campaign.
But unless there is a complete investigation and those connected with the decision to forward the email to the squadron are punished, he said, "this has no meaning."
Weinstein told Military.com that the problem with the solicitation is that it was sent to everyone through the official email of the 436th Force Support Squadron commander's secretary. For all intents and purposes that is perceived as having the commander's approval, he said, which lends itself to charges of undue command influence to promote religion.
Retired Army Chaplain (Col.) Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, on Tuesday issued a statement defending Branch's email to squadron members.
"We should be commending members of the Air Force, not condemning them for wanting to serve orphans," Crews said. "The e-mail announcing a volunteer opportunity in no way violates any Air Force policy or regulations, especially since the program involved is a federally approved charity."
Crews said his group hopes that Tasker "will stand behind those under his command who simply make others aware of how they may serve others if they so choose."
The Chaplains Alliance is made up of chaplain endorses -- those who provide chaplains for the military. Crews said the group speaks for more than 2,600 military chaplains.
Weinstein warned in his letter to Tasker that he would take the matter to federal court unless the commander publicly rescinds his endorsement of the event and punishes Branch or others responsible for the email.
Weinstein said there was a right way for Dover airmen and civilians to support the campaign, but Branch's email was not it.
"There's no problem with this [campaign] if it's done through the chaplain's office," Weinstein said.
The same campaign, sponsored by Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical Christian charity and relief organization headed by Rev. Franklin Graham, was held at Hurlburt Field, Florida, in 2013. But the event was organized there by the base chapel's Protestant parish coordinator and held at the chapel, according to an official Air Force feature on the event at the time.
A member of the 436th Force Support Squadron at Dover told Military.com on Monday that the solicitation sent by Branch was not the first religious-oriented email mass distributed to the squadron.