Well, it's October, and you know what that means - the War on Christmas has begun! Fox News has already announced the commencement of this year's festivities, and will no doubt be among those valiant defenders of all things unconstitutionally Christmassy who will soon be firing shots at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). Why? Because we once again have a military command officially endorsing and promoting Franklin Graham's Operation Christmas Child (OCC) and violating all sorts of military regulations to recruit shoebox-packing "missionaries."
Now, let's get things straight right from the start - MRFF is NOT trying to stop service members who want to participate in this program from participating in it. Any service member who wants to help the virulently Islamophobic Franklin Graham spread his twisted version of the "love" of Jesus to desperate impoverished children around the world under the guise of giving them gifts is perfectly free to do so. The recruiting of service members for Graham's shoebox crusade, however, cannot be done by the command structure at a military base. Anything to do with any religious program must be kept under the auspices of the chaplain's office, and ONLY the chaplain's office.
On October 14, in complete disregard DoD and Air Force regulations, Ms. Valencia Branch, the secretary to the commander of the 436th Force Support Squadron at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, forwarded an email to the unit's over 400 service members and civilian employees promoting a "Team FSS GREAT VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY!!!!!!" - an OCC shoebox packing party at the nearby Calvary Christian Academy (CCA). According to the email and its attached flyer:
"Our goal is to fill 5,000+ shoe boxes to be sent around the world as a way to show children in desperate situations that God loves and values them. Many of these children have never received a gift before. Many have never heard of God's incredible free Gift of Salvation through His Son. But a simple gift, a shoebox packed and prayed for by you could give a child hope and eternal security. Come, partner with us and CCA, be a 'missionary' filling shoebox gifts and praying over them with us"
When contacted by Military.com, Ms. Branch "expressed surprise at the proselytizing language of the message she forwarded. She also said she did not know where the email originated and that old emails had been deleted for space reasons."
OK, this claim of "surprise" by Ms. Branch at what the email said would only be remotely believable had she not added her own message to the email when she forwarded it. But this was not the case. And, don't worry about having deleted the email "for space reason," Ms. Branch. MRFF has a copy of it. You began this email whose contents you are now feigning surprise at:
From: BRANCH, VALENCIA M GS-05 USAF AMC 436 FSS/CCA
Sent: Wednesday, October 14, 2015 10:30 AM
To: 436 FSS Personnel Only
Subject: //Another Volunteer Oportunity//OCC Public Packing Party - Shoeboxes
Team FSS GREAT VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY!!!!!!
See info below -- Local Point of Contact: Our very own Mr Renee Valladeres in Civilian Personnel at 6774654
René B. Valladares
Central DelMar Operation Christmas Child (OCC)
Yes, Ms. Branch, that is what YOU added to the email when you forwarded it. Are we really to believe that you just willy-nilly and in big capital letters with multiple exclamation points proclaim something to be a "GREAT VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY!!!!!!" without even reading the email you're forwarding to see what that "GREAT VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY!!!!!!" is?
And then there's the fact that one of the fourteen airmen at Dover Air Force Base who have come to MRFF for help in putting a stop to your regulation-violating use of official email to promote things like this "GREAT VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY!!!!!!" told Military.com that the oh so "surprised" Ms. Branch has "sent out similar, Christian-oriented communications in the past and has also put 'inappropriate' religious literature on squadron member's desks." According to that airman, "This has been going on for a while" and "The problem is she's a gatekeeper to the commander, and she's constantly invoking this stuff."
So, on behalf of the fourteen airmen at Dover Air Force Base, MRFF has sent the following letter (link includes Ms. Branch's entire email and attached flyer as well as the letter below) to Lt. Col. Don Tasker, commander of the 436th Force Support Squadron:
Monday, October 19, 2015
ATTN: Lt. Col. Don Tasker, 436 FSS/CCA, Commanding
520 Main Gate Way
Dover Air Force Base
Dover, DE 19902
On behalf of 14 U.S. Air Force members who are subordinate personnel of the squadron you command, and whom it now represents in the matter below, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has been informed that a particular individual VERY close to you (and likewise under your command) in your organization has been using their official position and government authority to openly and willfully proselytize the evangelical Christian faith by endorsing and soliciting participation with the non-federal entities Central DelMar Operation Christmas Child (OCC) and Calvary Christian Academy (CCA).
On October 14th, Ms. Valencia M. Branch (GS-05), who is actually your PERSONAL Command Secretary/chief administrative assistant, sent an e-mail (see attached addendum) to the entirety of your military organization that included an absolutely unambiguous endorsement of OCC. In her message she described an upcoming event as a "GREAT VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY!!!" in flagrant violation of CFR 2635.702 - Use of public office for private gain, which reads in part:
Endorsements. An employee shall not use or permit the use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public office to endorse any product, service or enterprise except:
(1) In furtherance of statutory authority to promote products, services or enterprises; or
(2) As a result of documentation of compliance with agency requirements or standards or as the result of recognition for achievement given under an agency program of recognition for accomplishment in support of the agency's mission.
In the email, it is made explicitly clear that this event is an unsanctioned partnership between your organization and OCC. The completely unambiguous, Christian-specific proselytizing purpose of this event is also made quite abundantly clear, and is clearly not aligned with the support of your agency's mission:
"Our goal is to fill 5,000+ shoe boxes to be sent around the world as a way to show children in desperate situations that God loves and values them. Many of these children have never received a gift before. Many have never heard of God's incredible free Gift of Salvation through His Son. But a simple gift, a shoebox packed and prayed for by you could give a child hope and eternal security. Come, partner with us and CCA, be a 'missionary' filling shoebox gifts and praying over them with us" (emphasis added)
Ms. Branch has made it indubitably lucid in her very public endorsement that the prime purpose of OCC and the partnership with CCA is to evangelize, proselytize, and otherwise spread her personally preferred version of the Christian religion to impoverished children under the overwhelmingly transparent guise of giving them gifts and, in an indisputable and shocking violation of regulations, has used her official Air Force position to do so.
You, sir, are her Squadron Commander and IMMEDIATE boss/supervisor and, thus, bear the ultimate responsibility for her illicit, unconstitutional actions. She is YOUR personal Command Secretary/chief administrative assistant, for crying out loud, sir! There is a Constitutionally permissible time, place and manner for any military or civilian member of the United States military to effusively express and proudly and peacefully practice their religious faith (or no faith). However, the deliberate and defiant actions of your personal head administrative aid, Ms. Branch, violate all three of these religious practice constraint conditions. Thus, it is YOU, Lt. Col. Tasker, who must follow the solemn oath you (and Ms. Branch) swore to support and defend the United States Constitution and take swift remedial action to fix this unconstitutional train wreck which has just transpired on your watch, sir.
Ms. Branch's actions also blatantly strike directly against AFI 1-1 2.12, which reads in part:
"...leaders at all levels in the Air Force must ensure that 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."
Ms. Branch's actions, as fully endorsed and ratified by YOU - her Commander and immediate supervisor and absolutely one of the "leaders at all levels in the Air Force" described per AFI 1-1 above - additionally clearly and brazenly violates the Joint Ethics Regulation (DoD 5500.7-R), which strictly prohibits the endorsement of non-federal entities (Section 3-209), and DoD Instruction 5410.19, which, likewise, prohibits the providing of a selective benefit or preferential treatment to any organization (Sections 6.7.1 and 6.7.2).
Members of the United States Air Force, to include all civilian government employees of the United States Air Force, must respect the often forgotten truth that public office is not a tool that can be permissibly or Constitutionally used to spread any particular religious belief or even lack of religious belief such as atheism, agnosticism, et al. When that public or, in this specific case, military office becomes such a manifestly dangerous tool, it could best be described as a radioactive wrecking-ball of surpassing hazard, disease and risk to the unit cohesion, good order, morale, discipline, military readiness, mission accomplishment, health and safety of any military or civilian subordinates unfortunate enough to serve under such sectarian command-directed leadership. I quite assure you, sir, that our 14 MRFF clients directly under your command can fully attest to the disastrous impact Ms. Branch's proselytizing e-mail has had on THEIR unit cohesion, good order, morale etc.
Should any participation in a searingly sectarian religious program such as OCC take place, it must ONLY be accomplished under the auspices of the Chaplain's Office and be made absolutely clear that it is SOLELY a chapel activity that is not in ANY cognizable way otherwise endorsed by the official military chain of command. In case you need any reminding, sir, YOU are the "official military chain of command" for all of those who received this constitutionally noxious e-mail from your PERSONAL Command Secretary.
Therefore, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation demands that YOUR personal command endorsement of OCC be immediately and very publicly rescinded. MRFF further demands that appropriate and aggressive remedial actions of punishment be taken against Ms. Branch as well as any others either directly or indirectly involved (which may very well include you, sir, as her immediate supervisor and Squadron Commander) in this unscrupulous and pernicious coupling of church and state in the United States Air Force that so incontrovertibly constitutes textbook violations of CFR 2635.702, AFI 1-1, DoD 5500.7-R, and DoDI 5410.19.
FYI: In a very similar situation in February 2011 in which the National Prayer Luncheon (NPL) was being illicitly promoted and endorsed by the U.S. Air Force Academy's officer and cadet chains of command, MRFF took the Academy's illegal proselytizing promotion of NPL to Federal District Court in Denver, Colorado. In that instance, the situation was quickly remedied by the Air Force Academy before having to file an appeal from the Federal District Court to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in order to go to trial. The Academy took the appropriate action of putting the NPL program permanently under the auspices of the Air Force Academy's Chaplain's Office rather than the command structure. Incidentally, later that same year in November of 2011 the Air Force Academy also permanently placed sponsorship and oversight of OCC itself under the auspices of the Academy's Chaplain Corps following outspoken public MRFF pressure and threats to litigate. Of course, our clients' prior lawsuit protesting NPL seemed to "encourage" the Academy to take these expeditious remedial steps towards Constitutional compliance.
In the event that you do not take an equally acceptable and timely course of remedial internal action, MRFF is prepared to likewise take this case to Federal Court, just as it did with the 2011 Air Force Academy NPL case. Will you, too, need Federal court litigation "encouragement" to do the right thing here, Lt. Col. Tasker, as did the U.S. Air Force Academy in February of 2011?
MRFF awaits your decision.
Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein, Esq.
Founder and President
Military Religious Freedom Foundation