Liberty Institute's Kelly Shackelford Spreads 'Fear and Misinformation' at Air Force Academy Leadership Symposium

One of the speakers at this year's National Character & Leadership Symposium was Kelly Shackelford, the President & CEO of the Liberty Institute, which describes itself as "the largest legal organization dedicated solely to defending and restoring religious liberty in America."
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On February 27 and 28, the Air Force Academy held its annual National Character & Leadership Symposium, an event described as "one of the nation's premier symposia in the field of character and leadership development." The speakers at this annual symposium include "distinguished scholars, military leaders, corporate executives, world-class athletes, and others." The attendees are not only Air Force Academy cadets and staff, but also students and faculty from civilian colleges and universities, ROTC detachments, and international delegations.

One of the speakers at this year's National Character & Leadership Symposium was Kelly Shackelford, the President & CEO of the Liberty Institute, which describes itself as "the largest legal organization dedicated solely to defending and restoring religious liberty in America."

Shackelford's Liberty Institute is a member organization of the so-called "Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition," a coalition formed last year to champion Rep. John Fleming's anything-but-religious-liberty amendment to the FY14 National Defense Authorization Act. As I've previously written, Fleming's (failed) amendment was not about religious liberty -- it was nothing but a sneaky attempt to give permission to anti-gay Christians in the military to freely discriminate against and harass LGB service members in a post-DADT and post-DOMA military under the guise of religious liberty.

Among Shackelford's cohorts in this "Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition" is none other than retired Army general and all around nutcase Jerry "my god is bigger than their god" Boykin, who recently made national headlines once again when he proclaimed that Jesus would be coming back toting an AR-15 assault rifle.

In addition to making no secret that, to them, this military religious liberty stuff is really all about the God-given right of fundamentalist Christians in the military to bash the gays, the members of the "Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition," along with their allies in Congress, have also made it no secret that their number one enemy is Mikey Weinstein, the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), with the name Weinstein appearing forty-one times in the ten pages of its much-touted (and extremely fact challenged) report, "A Clear and Present Danger," and Weinstein's name even being invoked on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The Liberty Institute's most widely-covered recent case has been that of Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Phillip Monk, who claimed that he was let go from his position and faced possible court-martial for disagreeing with his openly gay commander about same-sex marriage. The findings of the Air Force's investigation into Monk's complaint, however, told a different story. Monk's removal from his position had nothing to do with his disagreement with his commanding officer. He was not "fired" from this position for his Christian beliefs, as the Liberty Institute and media outlets like Fox News claimed. The investigation found that he was already scheduled to be rotated to another position before any of this even happened. And yet the "Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition" continues to use SMSgt. Monk as their poster boy for their claims of Christian persecution in the military.

So, now that anyone who didn't know who Kelly Shackelford is has a bit of background information, let's get to his presentation at the Air Force Academy's National Character & Leadership Symposium (NCLS).

Several times during his two presentations at the NCLS, Mr. Shackelford said that the greatest "attacker" of religious liberty is "fear and misinformation." And that it absolutely true, as demonstrated by Mr. Shackelford's nearly nonstop use of fear and misinformation in his presentations -- presentations that were chock full of fear-inducing stories full of misinformation about alleged egregious violations of religious freedom and Christian persecution.

In describing how widespread the persecution of Christians is in America, Mr. Shackelford said:

"It's an eight-year-old boy who's told not to -- he was caught praying over his meal, lifted out of his cafeteria seat and taken to the principal's office, told to never do that again all the way to senior citizens who were told that their meals were going to be taken away because they're federally funded and they were praying over their meals which violated the separation of church and state."

The cases that Mr. Shackelford was referring to here are a couple of oldies-but-goodies -- a twenty-year-old tale made famous by Newt Gingrich way back in 1994 about an eight-year-old boy in St. Louis who was supposedly yanked out of his chair in the cafeteria and sent to the principal for praying over his lunch, and a ten-year-old case about a senior citizens center in Balch Springs, TX.

The one about the praying eight-year-old is the now infamous story of a fourth grade student in St. Louis named Raymond Raines, which gained national attention way back in 1994 when Newt Gingrich told it on NBC's Meet the Press. The story was debunked soon after Gingrich told it, but that, of course, doesn't stop people like Kelly Shackelford from continuing to use it nearly twenty years later. Some may recall hearing this story when discredited pseudo-historian David Barton appeared on The Daily Show in May 2012. Barton made the story sound even more shocking by making the kid younger, telling Jon Stewart that it was a five-year-old rather than an eight-year-old, but he was talking about the same fictitious incident as Shackelford was at the Air Force Academy.

In reality, Raymond Raines was not disciplined for praying. According to school officials, who investigated the claim by talking to teachers, administrators, and other students, what Raines was actually disciplined for was fighting in the cafeteria. Even the Rev. Earl E. Nance Jr., a Baptist minister who was a member of the St. Louis school board at the time, said he didn't believe the story, calling the lawsuit filed by The Rutherford Institute "frivolous."

We'll get to the one about the senior citizens' getting their meals taken away for praying over them a little further on, since Mr. Shackelford not only used that one in this part of his presentation, but also as the story he ended his presentation with. But first let's look at some of the more recent cases used by Mr. Shackelford, starting with an example he used of the horrible persecution of Christians in the military.

In rattling off his litany of cases, Mr. Shackelford said:

"I think of Walter Reed Hospital actually banned Bibles being brought in from family members for wounded soldiers until that was exposed and overturned."

This is just more "fear and misinformation" from Mr. Shackelford. No family member was ever stopped from giving a Bible to a wounded soldier at Walter Reed Hospital. This was just a case of a poorly worded guideline that the right-wing media and organizations like Shackelford's Liberty Institute got a hold of and turned into a big, headline-grabbing tale of Christian persecution.

Here's what really happened:

There were complaints from patients who were being harassed by members of the religious groups that were visiting the hospital, so the hospital's chief of staff, in a memorandum on the hospital's patient visitation policies, included a guideline intended to protect the right of these wounded service members to be free from the kind of unsolicited and unwelcome proselytization that they were being subjected to. Everybody knew that this guideline was not intended to apply to family members or friends visiting an individual wounded service member whom they personally knew. It was only intended to apply to the strangers from the outside religious groups visiting the hospital whose tactics were being complained about by the patients and their families. As a second memorandum explained:

"The policy in question was established after receiving complaints from Warriors and their families at both Walter Reed Army Medical Center and National Naval Medical Center who were approached by unsolicited faith-based groups visiting the inpatient wards. Patients and families reported that these groups were proselytizing and making disparaging remarks about Warrior's service, sometimes using threatening and condemning language. According to the patients, some visits were persistent and repeated."

Obviously, this was merely a case of a guideline whose intent wasn't clearly spelled out, but was nevertheless understood by anyone with half a brain. To the right-wing media and organizations like Shackelford's Liberty Institute, however, it was red meat for their claims of Christian persecution, and was turned by them into a national news story -- one that they're still using and completely misrepresenting over two years later.

Not at all surprisingly, in the Kelly Shackelford version of the story, as told to the attendees at the Air Force Academy's National Character and Leadership Symposium, it was the harassers of the wounded service members who were the victims, not the wounded service members in the hospital wards who were being used by these unwanted religious visitors as a captive audience to force their beliefs on.

Mr. Shackelford also included some more recent civilian cases, like the famous "stomp on Jesus" case, saying:

"You probably saw the stomp on Jesus case, with the student down at Florida Atlantic University, who -- all the students were told in class to pull out a sheet of paper, to write Jesus in big letters, and then put it on the ground and then stomp on it, and when he wouldn't do it -- he was the only one who wouldn't -- he put his back on his desk -- he was not only kicked out of class, but he was suspended and charges were brought against him before that case."

This case was recent enough that many people might remember seeing it in the news. A communications professor did an exercise in his class intended to demonstrate the power of symbols. The professor did not invent this exercise. It's been around for three decades, and was actually created by a professor at a Catholic college. Just the fact that it comes from a Catholic college alone should cast suspicion on the claim that it is an anti-Christian exercise. The point of the exercise is to show that most of the students won't step on the piece of paper with the name of Jesus on it, leading to a discussion of why they wouldn't step on it and the importance of symbols in culture. So, we're really supposed to believe that this student at Florida Atlantic University was kicked out of the class, suspended, and had charges brought against him just because he wouldn't step on the piece of paper when the entire point of the exercise relies on the expectation that most students won't step on the piece of paper?

A current Liberty Institute case that Mr. Shackelford used as another of his examples is the case of a rabbi who Mr. Shackelford claimed was "criminally prosecuted because he held a religious meeting in his home with ten people without getting city approval."

Really? A rabbi was "criminally prosecuted" just for having ten people at his house for a religious meeting? That sounds completely unbelievable -- and it should -- because it isn't true.

First of all, the rabbi in this case was not criminally charged. That's just the "fear" part of the "fear and misinformation" that Mr. Shackelford added when telling this story at the Air Force Academy. In reality, this is a dispute between neighbors. The homeowner who lives across the street from a house that's being used as a synagogue rather than a residence is suing the rabbi for violating the neighborhood's homeowners association covenant, which allows only single family residential use of the homes. And, judging by the yard signs that have been put up in front of other houses on the street, the other homeowners in the neighborhood (who are complaining about things like the people coming to this house/synagogue causing all the dogs in the neighborhood barking at 6:00 a.m. every morning), are with the guy who's suing the rabbi. The issue is not that the rabbi is merely having a few people over for religious meetings, as Mr. Shackelford very misleadingly claims. The rabbi doesn't live in this house. It is being used solely as a synagogue, seven days a week, with six different regularly scheduled meetings or services on most days, the first in the early morning beginning as early as 6:00 a.m. and the last beginning at 9:15 p.m., as you can see on the synagogue's website's schedule (yeah, this "private home" has a website with a schedule of meetings and services).

But this is the typical tactic of people like Kelly Shackelford when rattling off these cases of alleged religious persecution -- exaggerate or totally make up the punishment (the rabbi was "criminally prosecuted") and minimize what the issue is that's being complained about to make it sound like a completely outrageous complaint (all the rabbi is doing is having some people in his private home for a little religious meeting).

One of the best examples of Mr. Shackelford's use of his "fear and misinformation" tactic was his description of an argument used in a particular Supreme Court case:

"Probably the best example I could give you is -- I guess it's now about two years ago -- I was sitting in the front row of the Supreme Court [unintelligible] and I heard an argument I never thought I would hear in my life. And this was the group from the solicitor general's office of the United States. This is the highest group of attorneys in the country, who represent our federal government, the president, and the solicitor general's office stood up -- and this was in the Hosanna-Tabor case -- and argued to all nine justices that the federal government had the power, if it so desired, to tell churches and synagogues who their pastors and rabbis could be and that the religion clauses offered no protection from that. I mean, you could literally hear a gasp in the audience when they read this argument. And when the decision came down a month later, that argument was rejected nine to zero In fact, the chief justice referred to this argument as, quote, remarkable. (Laughter) So, yes, that didn't happen, but it tells you something about how far [unintelligible] that that argument is actually being made in the highest court."

No, the Solicitor General's office did not claim that the federal government had the right to tell churches who their pastors could be. This was a case of a teacher at a Christian school who was trying to sue the school for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act after being let go because she had been temporarily unable to work because she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. The school claimed that the teacher was not fired due to her disability, but because she threatened to sue the school. The school claimed that bringing a case to a civil court rather than to the church's synod was against the tenets of their religion. What the Solicitor General's office was arguing was that it violated the rights of the teacher to be barred from accessing the courts to bring a complaint against the school if that school, religious or not, had violated the law. Where things got sticky was that the school was claiming that the teacher should fall under the "ministerial exception" -- the exception that prevents the government from being able to dictate who a church can and can't have as their clergy members (e.g., a woman can't sue the Catholic Church for gender discrimination for not letting her be a priest). In the case of this teacher, the school successfully argued that the ministerial exception should apply because the teacher was considered a "called" teacher by the church, and did perform some religious duties in addition to her regular teaching duties. In no way was the Solicitor General's office making some sort of broad statement that the government had the power to tell churches who their pastors can be, as Mr. Shackelford claimed to elicit some more "fear" in his Air Force Academy presentation.

Mr. Shackelford brought up far too many cases in his presentation to get to all of them here, but there is one more that I want to include -- the case mentioned earlier of the senior citizens being told that their federally funded meals were going to be taken away because they were praying over them. I recognized this case immediately when I was listening to the audio obtained by MRFF of Mr. Shackelford's presentations at the Air Force Academy because it was one of the cases that I recently wrote about for other reasons as part of the appendix to one of my books. (For those who are interested in reading more about the lies and half-truths used to spread the kind of "fear and misinformation" relied upon by Mr. Shackelford and others like him, I've made a PDF of the entire appendix from my book, which is fully footnoted, available on my website.)

The reason this particular case was so memorable to me was because it was a case in which Mr. Shackelford was -- how shall I put it? -- um -- not entirely honest with the court.

Now, what do you picture when you read Mr. Shackelford's description of a group of senior citizens being told that their meals were going to be taken away just because they were praying over them? Do you envision some horrible senior center employee walking up to a table of white-haired seniors who are doing nothing more than saying grace over their meal and ordering them to stop? That would be outrageous, right? Of course it would. But that's not what happened. This case was not about the seniors simply praying over their own meals.

What was actually going on at this senior center were weekly sermons by a minister and gospel band performances (which Mr. Shackelford did briefly acknowledge when bringing this case up again at the end of his presentation), and the prayer before meals was not merely the seniors praying over their own meals. It was regular organized group prayer with someone appointed to lead the prayers.

In August 2003, three members of this senior center, located in Balch Springs, TX, complained about all of this constant religious activity going on at the city-owned facility. According to one of the three, who made it clear that she was a Christian herself, those who did not want to listen to the sermons and prayers had to leave and go to another part of the center, described as a smaller room with pool tables, in order to avoid this religious activity.

In Mr. Shackelford's version of the story, it was the government -- in this case, four evil city council members -- that, for no reason at all except for a hatred of anything religious, stopped these religious activities. Mr. Shackelford just leaves out the pesky detail that the city council members did not just get up one day and say, "Hey, let's mess with the senior citizens by stopping their religious activities." The city council was acting on a complaint made by members of the senior center about the religious activities.

Sixteen other senior center members, including the minister who had been giving the weekly sermons, then sued the city, claiming that their First Amendment rights were being violated. They were represented by Kelly Shackelford and another attorney from the Liberty Legal Institute (now known as the Liberty Institute), along with a third attorney who now works for the Liberty Institute.

In the original court complaint, filed in September 2003, the Liberty Institute lawyers also claimed that the city had retaliated against the senior center members by canceling their weekly trips to the grocery store and other outings, firing two employees who supported the members who wanted the religious activities, and refusing to pick up two of the members to bring them to the center because their son had written a letter to the editor of a Dallas newspaper criticizing the city's policy. The city denied all of these allegations, and they were eventually dismissed.

As for the religious activities, the Liberty Institute won. The senior center, which would be considered a limited public forum (a public building or facility that's not as completely open to use by the public as a street or a public park would be), was required to be content-neutral, allowing religious speech and activities on the same basis as secular speech and activities. Other types of musical performances and lectures were held at the center, so the gospel band performances and sermons also had to be allowed. This was hardly an unusual decision.

What was unusual, however, was the big contradiction between what the Liberty Institute claimed during the case and what one of its clients in the case later revealed.

While a limited public forum can be used by private citizens for religious activities, the government employees who work there cannot run or participate in these activities. In the motion for an injunction to allow the religious activities at the senior center to resume while the case was ongoing, the Liberty Institute lawyers claimed that no employees of the center had been directing or participating in any of the religious activities, writing:

"The City and its employees do not sponsor or endorse these activities. They are initiated and led by private senior citizens, who are members of the center. ... Moreover, the City and its employees did not direct or participate in any of these activities."

If that statement were true, and this had always been the case, then the senior center had never been doing anything wrong at all. But it wasn't true, as Barney Clark, one of the sixteen senior center members represented by the Liberty Institute, revealed six months later.

In June 2004, the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution held a hearing on religious expression, called "Beyond the Pledge of Allegiance: Hostility to Religious Expression in the Public Square." One of the people to give their testimony at this hearing was none other than Mr. Clark, who, of course, was there to talk about the senior center case.

From Mr. Clark's testimony:

"But, our Director, Debbie McDaniel, can not be involved with anything to do with religion. She was a member of the gospel band that provided us with music each Monday. As a result of this, her husband, Ted McDaniel, didn't feel right playing when his wife wasn't welcomed. Consequently, we don't have our regular gospel music. Sometimes we are lucky and have some of the band play solo. Mrs. McDaniel has been the director for ten years. When she first started there was a lady, Dorothy Ward, who played gospel music on the piano each Monday. Everyone got up around the piano and sang. Mrs. McDaniel joined in on the singing as she does on all activities involved in the daily running of the center. As the Center Director this is part of her job, whether it is crafts, bingo, exercising, music, etc. As it stands now we would be satisfied if Mrs. McDaniel, our director, could once again join in the gospel music."

So, contrary to what Mr. Shackelford and the other Liberty Institute lawyers claimed during the case, Debra McDaniel, the director of the senior center, absolutely was participating in the religious activities. She was actually a member of the gospel band - and such an important participant in this part of the center's religious activities that the gospel music ceased to regularly continue without her participation!

The Liberty Institute might have won this case, but it certainly appears that Mr. Shackelford and his colleagues weren't completely honest with the court while it was going on.

As you can see from the real stories behind the scary sound-bite versions of these cases conveyed by Mr. Shackelford at the Air Force Academy's National Character & Leadership Symposium, "fear and misinformation" is, as Mr. Shackelford said, the the greatest "attacker" of religious liberty, and there is no better proof of the truth of this statement than Mr. Shackelford himself!

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