Air Force Chief Of Chaplains Openly Blesses Blatantly Anti-LGBT Award Event

On July 12, the Air Force's chief of chaplains, Maj. Gen. Dondi E. Costin, attended an event at which he took the stage in uniform to deliver the event's closing benediction. Also attending this event in uniform were the Air Force's deputy chief of chaplains, Brig. Gen. Steve Schaick, Army chaplain Lt. Col. Karen Meeker, and Army chaplain Maj. John Scott, who delivered the event's opening invocation.

The event was hosted by the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL), an organization of former military chaplains that was formed for the clear purpose of opposing the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT), and after efforts to stop the repeal failed, has continued, in collaboration with other anti-LGBT fundamentalist Christian organizations and their allies in Congress, to attempt to undo, through legislation and by other means, the rights and protections now guaranteed to LGBT service members.

Speakers at this CARL event included retired Lt. Gen. Jerry "Jesus is coming back carrying an AR-15" Boykin, Fox News's Todd Starnes, and a number of far-right, fundamentalist Christian members of Congress, one of whom, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), was being honored with CARL's "Torchbearer Award," which was the reason for the event.

Not surprisingly, given CARL's openly anti-LGBT history and the event's slate of speakers, this event was blatantly anti-LGBT, blatantly anti-atheist, and also undeniably political, with Boykin's speech including comments such as: "this LGBT agenda of this administration is making life difficult, not just for chaplains, but for everybody," and, "I don't care what any of the nonsensical liberals say, I have never seen an atheist in a foxhole." Similar comments were made by the event's other speakers, as reported on the blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

It is just fine, of course, for a private organization such as CARL to spew whatever homophobic, anti-atheist, Christian supremacist, and political views it wants to at its events. What is not just fine is for military personnel to endorse the opinions and agendas of private organizations (or "non-federal entities," as they are called in military regulations) by participating in their events in their official capacity. Add to that the fact that the non-federal entity being endorsed in this case is one whose mission is to oppose and undermine DoD policy, as well as the clearly partisan political message of the event, and we've got a whole slew of regulations that were violated by Maj. Gen. Costin and the other chaplains who appeared at this event in uniform. Therefore, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has demanded an investigation by the DoD Inspector General (DoD IG) into the attendance and participation by Maj. Gen. Costin and the other chaplains at this event. (See MRFF's letter to DoD IG here.)

The expected response from the fundamentalist Christian outrage brigade soon followed. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) put out two posts on its website, full of the typical lies demonizing MRFF, and claiming in the first of the two posts that the CARL event was merely "an event celebrating religious freedom in the military," and in the second post titled "Defending Chaplains from the MRFF," that the reason that CARL bestowed its "Torchbearer Award" on Congressman Forbes was simply "to honor him for his support of chaplains," making CARL's award event sound like a completely innocuous event that would be completely appropriate, and even expected, for a high-ranking chaplain like Maj. Gen. Costin and other military chaplains to attend or participate in.

And while CARL claims that it awards its "Torchbearer Award to individuals who have helped carry high the torch of religious liberty for all service members," comments from its Torchbearer Award event speakers completely contradict this claim, such as Jerry Boykin's statement: "I do not want to see a man or a woman, go into combat, go into harm's way, go into danger, that has not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ." How, exactly, does not wanting to see any service member go into combat without a dose of evangelism from a Christian chaplain "carry high the torch of religious liberty for all service members?"

In addition to its posts on its website, the ACLJ has also sent its own letter to the DoD IG -- a twelve page long letter, most of which is nothing more than an attack on MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein, with a few irrelevant arguments and apples-to-oranges examples thrown in to defend Maj. Gen. Costin's and the other chaplains' attendance and participation in the CARL event.

But before getting to the arguments presented by the ACLJ in its letter, let's take a closer look at CARL and its history as a blatantly anti-LGBT, political activist organization.

CARL is a group of retired fundamentalist Christian chaplains, most of whom are now chaplain endorsers. (Chaplain endorsers, formally called "Ecclesiastical Endorsing Agents," are the individuals representing their religion or religious denomination who certify to the military that a chaplain of their religion or religious denomination meets the educational and other qualifications required to be a military chaplain.) Out of the hundreds of current chaplain endorsers, about thirty belong to CARL, all of whom must subscribe to CARL's "Purpose Statement," which includes its purpose of "exposing the rising tide of threats to religious liberty" such as "the inherent dangers and destructive effects of providing official approval of and protection for deviant lifestyles and behaviors which Scripture and orthodox Christian tradition and teaching condemn."

As already mentioned, CARL was clearly formed for the specific purpose of opposing the repeal of "DADT." The very first act of this organization, before it was even formally an organization, was a September 2010 letter to President Obama and then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arguing that "normalizing homosexual behavior" in the military would have all sorts of dire consequences for both chaplains and other service members. CARL's next big cause, after efforts to stop the repeal of DADT failed, was to oppose the "sanctioning and normalizing the use of base chapels for same-sex unions," arguing in a May 2011 letter to the chiefs of chaplains of all military branches that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was still the law of the land, and should still "apply to Federal military facilities, particularly base chapels." CARL reaffirmed its commitment to denying same-sex couples the right to get married in military chapels in an October 2011 press release, in which the organization's executive director, Ron Crews, said: "By dishonestly sanctioning the use of federal facilities for 'marriage counterfeits' that federal law and the vast majority of Americans have rejected, the Pentagon has launched a direct assault on the fundamental unit of society - husband and wife." Then there was the outrage over the DoD extending benefits to same-sex partners of military members, the Supreme Court's 2013 striking down of a key part of DOMA, and most recently the lifting of the ban on transgender service members serving openly in the military.

There is also no question when reading the plethora of press releases and letters on CARL's website that this organization is not only virulently anti-LGBT but highly political, writing numerous letters lobbying members of Congress and regularly criticizing President Obama, with Ron Crews, in his capacity of executive director of CARL, even signing onto a letter urging Senate leaders not to consider any Supreme Court nomination made by Obama to replace Antonin Scalia, an issue that is clearly far outside the purview of CARL's stated mission of being a military "religious liberty" organization.

This is the organization that the Air Force's chief of chaplains, Maj. Gen. Dondi Costin, endorsed by appearing at its "Torchbearer Award" event in uniform and blessing that event by delivering its closing benediction -- an organization that couldn't be more clear about its anti-LGBT agenda, holding an event giving an award to Congressman Randy Forbes, who, as the Air Force Times noted, "has consistently opposed allowing gay and lesbian people to serve in the military." This was clearly not some innocuous event "celebrating religious freedom in the military," as the ACLJ attempts to paint it.

As already mentioned, most of the ACLJ's letter to the DoD IG is nothing more than an attack on Mikey Weinstein, and the main point of the parts that are about the actual issue, if they have a point at all, seems to be that the ACLJ doesn't think that chaplains should be subject to military regulations.

MRFF, in its letter to the DoD IG, asserts that Maj. Gen. Costin's participation in the CARL event violated Air Force Instruction 1-1, Section 2.12 of which states (emphasis added):

"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 ACLJ, in its letter, disagrees that Maj. Gen. Costin violated this regulation, writing that (emphasis in original): "... denominational affiliation is the irreducible essence of membership in the military chaplaincy, and as such, military chaplains are expected to represent a specific denominational view within the military. Military chaplains are, in the final analysis, members or the clergy of their specific faith groups who conduct their ministry in uniform."

The key words there would be "within the military." Yes, of course a chaplain is expected to represent their specific denominational view, and to do so in uniform, within the military. That is their job. But that is not what we're talking about here. We are talking about a chaplain -- and not just any chaplain, but the chief of chaplains for an entire branch of the military -- endorsing the views of and "extending preferential treatment" to the beliefs of a private organization. Does the fact that Maj. Gen. Costin holds the same beliefs as this private organization make this okay, as the ACLJ contends? Well, not according the the findings of the DoD IG when it investigated a similar case a decade ago. In that case, seven officers at the Pentagon, one of whom was the Pentagon chaplain, were found to be in violation of a number of military regulations for their participation in uniform in a video promoting the non-federal entity Christian Embassy. All seven officers, including the Pentagon chaplain, were found to be in violation of "JER [Joint Ethics Regulation] Sections 2635.702(b), "Appearance of governmental sanction," and 3-300.a. on personal participation in non-Federal entities; DoD Directive (DoDD) 1334.1, "Wearing of the Uniform"; and Army and Air Force uniform standards." Was the Pentagon chaplain exempted from these regulations because he held the same religious views as the non-federal entity Christian Embassy? No. He was not only found to be in violation of exactly the same regulations as the other six non-chaplain officers, but was further found to be in violation of DoD Instruction 5410.19, which prohibits granting a selective benefit or preferential treatment to any organization.

The ACLJ, however, rather than using a similar situation such as the Christian Embassy investigation as their example the DoD IG's findings in a prior case, uses the apples-to-oranges example of the DoD IG's findings in the case of Jerry Boykin's infamous 2002 and 2003 speeches, delivered in uniform at churches and to other religious groups, in which he presented the war on terror as a holy war against Islam and a battle against Satan. In that case, as the ACLJ points out, the DoD IG did not find Boykin to be in violation of DoDD 1334.1 for giving these speeches in uniform. What the ACLJ fails to point out is that Boykin was found to be in violation of other regulations -- the JER and AR 360-1 -- for failing to issue appropriate disclaimers when making speeches involving DoD policy to make it clear that the views he was expressing were his personal views and not the views of the DoD, and that the DoD IG based this determination in part on the facts that Boykin's "activities constituted 'personal participation in non-Federal entities,'" and that "he was introduced by rank and/or position, the significance of which was emphasized on at least 21of the 23 events by his appearance in uniform." But the ACLJ needs a case in which the DoD IG did not find a violation of the specific regulation, DoDD 1334.1, so that it can claim in its letter:

"Your very office, in its investigation of Army LTG William Boykin in 2004, found no such violation despite General Boykin's having appeared in multiple public locations in uniform, giving speeches in churches and similar locations. If LTG Boykin's activities did not violate the Directive, neither can the chaplains' attendance and saying solemnizing prayers at the Forbes event violate the Directive."

And MRFF's response to that would be that the DoD IG did find the officers in the Christian Embassy case -- a case much more similar to the participation of Maj. Gen. Costin and the other chaplains at the CARL event -- to be in violation of this particular Directive. If the activities of the Pentagon chaplain and other officers in that case were found to be in violation of this Directive, then the chaplains' attendance and saying solemnizing prayers at the CARL event violate the Directive.

In another example of its apples-to-oranges tactics, the ACLJ cites over a dozen Supreme Court cases in its letter to support its contention that military chaplains have exactly the same rights regarding free speech and free expression as civilians. But, while citing all of these cases regarding free speech and free expression in the civilian sphere, the ACLJ completely ignores that the Supreme Court, in the 1974 case Parker v. Levy, ruled that members of the military do not have the same rights as civilians. The opinion in this case, written by one of the most conservative justices in the history of the Court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, said (emphasis added):

"This Court has long recognized that the military is, by necessity, a specialized society separate from civilian society... While the members of the military are not excluded from the protection granted by the First Amendment, the different character of the military community and of the military mission requires a different application of those protections. ... 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... Speech that is protected in the civil population may nonetheless undermine the effectiveness of response to command. If it does, it is constitutionally unprotected."

So, what might the consequences be when we have a chief of chaplains of a military branch who openly endorses a virulently anti-LGBT, extreme fundamentalist organization like CARL? Can any real harm be done by this? Absolutely. Organizations like CARL and the ACLJ constantly tout chaplains as the guardians of religious liberty in the military, but as the Roman poet Juvenal asked, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" -- or "Who will guard the guards?"

What would Maj. Gen. Costin do if he were made aware of an Air Force chaplain whose views were so extreme that they considered almost no other Christians to be true "Bible-believing" Christians, and whose public writings and videos echoed the views of their CARL-member chaplain endorser, which has explained the mission of a military chaplain like this:

"There are nearly one and a half million men and women in the military today, served by just 2,680 chaplains. That's a small number especially when you consider that only a small fraction of them adhere to the fundamentals of Biblical Christianity. Associated Gospel Churches serves as the endorsing agency for those choice servants of Christ, who seek to enter the Chaplaincy from Independent Baptist or Bible Church backgrounds.

"Chaplains have the unique opportunity of presenting the claims of Christ to military personnel at a time when they are removed from their comfort zones at home, when they are most open to the Gospel. ..."

Well, if you're Maj. Gen. Dondi Costin, you do nothing.

This past April and May, MRFF advisory board member Chaplain (COL-R) Quentin D. Collins, Ph.D., a retired Army Command Chaplain who retired as the highest decorated chaplain whose medals, which include two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts, were awarded while a chaplain in combat, wrote to Maj. Gen. Costin three times regarding his concerns about one of Costin's underlings -- Air Force Reserve chaplain, Capt. Sonny Hernandez.

Until his recent retirement, Chaplain Collins was endorsed through The Coalition of Spirit-filled Churches, and, as he wrote in his first letter to Maj. Gen. Costin, although he is "a Born again, Spirit filled Christian who was educated in a Nazarene University, a Baptist Seminary and a Presbyterian Doctoral Program," Chaplain Hernandez's views are so extreme that if he "listened to my devout Evangelical Christian beliefs, he would deduce that I was lost and going to hell," and that Hernandez "has displayed a firm belief that all CH's that do not fit into his idea of the 'true mission,' of converting all military personnel to his beliefs, are going to hell." Collins further explained to Maj. Gen. Costin that "Hernandez blogs very frequently and appears on several podcasts espousing his dangerous views that a military CH's primary focus must be 'the mission field' and, accordingly, that military CH's must bring all of the military to his interpretation of Jesus. Such a thought by any US Military Chaplain of any branch is wrong, if not outright dangerous," and that Hernandez "is using social media as a pulpit for vilifying Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Muslims, Buddhists and other Evangelical Christians that help provide faith to our military and their families. What he is espousing publicly is repugnant. In addition, CH Hernandez has shown that he is extremely homophobic and is not afraid to say so. This virulent bigotry strays completely from Chaplain Officers Basic Course training in Ft Jackson, SC."

Hernandez is a chaplain for the 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Dayton, Ohio. He is also the pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, a church whose "Street Preaching Ministry" targets not only abortion clinics and gay pride events, but also Catholic events.

One of Chaplain Hernandez's online outlets for his "teachings" is the "Christian Fighter Pilot" blog -- the blog of former fighter pilot and current paper pusher, Air Force Lt. Col. Jonathan Dowty -- where Hernandez has been posting his homophobic, extremist fundamentalist Christian tirades since last year.

Among the gems found in Hernandez's posts is his own set of requirements for what qualifies a man (women are not qualified) to be a military chaplain:

"To the Gospel-centered man that aspires to serve as a military chaplain: You must be a male and biblically qualified (1Timothy 3:1-7), be under the authority of the elders or pastors in a Bible-believing church (Hebrews 13:17), vehemently love everyone enough to tell them the truth that can save them (1 John 4:7-10; Jude 1:23), do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim 4:5), possess a Master of Divinity from an accredited seminary, and meet all of the requirements that are determined by the respective branch of the Armed Forces."

Opposing equality for women is also among the "Mandated Policies" of Hernandez's chaplain endorser and CARL member, Associated Gospel Churches (AGC), which passed a resolution "call[ing] upon all who believe the Creator has established laws for his creation and judges those who dishonor and disobey His laws or abrogate for themselves the right to change them, to ... pray that the Lord of Hosts would show our leaders the folly of the Women in Combat policy and frustrate their schemes" -- a resolution prefaced by a statement that, along with allowing women in combat, "the lifting of the Ban on Homosexuals serving in the military and the legalization of 'same sex marriage' are also breaches in God's created order" that will "invite the righteous judgment of God."

If you want to be punished further, Chaplain Hernandez's posts on Lt. Col. Dowty's blog -- from his explanation of how "There are no Atheists in (or out of) Foxholes" to "The Homosexual, Anti-Christian Agenda and the Military" -- can be found here. And if you really want to torture yourself, watch the video of his "Wrath of God" sermon, in which he explains the "perfect justice of God" and "righteous judgment that's going to take place upon those who bathe in their sin and boast in their debauchery" and how "they receive in themselves the due penalty of their error," using as his example gays and bisexuals being infected with HIV.

And what has Maj. Gen. Costin done about Chaplain Sonny Hernandez? Has he responded to Chaplain Collins's letters? No. He's attended an event at which he openly blessed the agenda of the chaplain endorsers who are filling the ranks of the Chaplain Corps with exactly the same kind of bigoted, rabidly homophobic, insanely fundamentalist chaplains that Hernandez is.