The Air Force Reserve Command is threatening to censor a report about a reservist and his family who spend their Christmas holidays each year on humanitarian trips – most recently visiting Guatemala and providing medical treatment for indigenous people.
The threat is drawing outrage from the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, which has dispatched a letter to the military that not only is the article acceptable, to censor it would be to allow a “heckler’s veto” to control expression, “something that the Supreme Court has explicitly rejected.”
The article, on the Air Force Reserve Command website, features Senior Master Sgt. Larry Gallo, who with his wife, Yvonne, and daughters, Daizha and Paree, have made similar humanitarian trips for several years.
The article mentions that “Christ” is part of the name of the group that organized the trip, and a pastor went along.
The mention prompted the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to object that the military was endorsing a specific religion.
The chaplains’ group argued to Col. William Whittenberger Jr., the commander of 433rd Airlift Wing, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, that the Supreme Court has made clear that as long as the military grants “equal access to both secular and religious speech,” it does not “endorse or disapprove of religion.”
“It has repeatedly declared – no less than seven times – that the government does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause when it treats religious and secular expression alike.”
The chaplains said it’s “important to recognize that the First Amendment exists to protect controversial speech, even if it is religious.”
“The ‘bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment’ … is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive of disagreeable.”
The chaplains said MRFF may be offended by Gallo’s expression of his faith and is entitled to those feelings, but the Supreme Court has “made it clear that merely coming into contact with things MRFF finds ‘disagreeable’ is not a constitutional injury; it is just part of life in a pluralistic society.”
Retired chaplain Col. Ron Crews, executive director of Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, said Gallo “should be commended for his humanitarian work, not have his work maligned just because his faith motivates him.”
“There is absolutely nothing for the military to review concerning this article,” he said. “Congress already addressed this issue in the Right of Conscience Clause of the National Defense Authorization Act, and the Air Force has recently issued revised guidelines that permit Air Force personnel to speak about their faith.”
The Gallo article Tuesday remained posted with an advisory at the top that it was being reviewed to determine “if it is consistent with Air Force standards.”
Crews noted that in October, the Air Force removed an article by Col. Florencio Marquinez in which he expressed his Christian faith.
But at the same time, another piece, by Senior Airman Jarrod Grammel, called “Atheist ponders spiritual fitness,” remains posted online.
Legal counsel Travis Barham of the Alliance Defending Freedom said it amounts to a double standard.
“Every American, especially those who wear the uniform and fight to protect our freedoms, should be allowed to live out their faith without fear of recrimination,” he said.
The chaplains association letter to AFRC said that by not censoring the article, “you will fulfill the best of our nation’s history of accommodating religion and avoid manifesting the viewpoint discrimination and hostility towards religion that the First Amendment prohibits.”
“You will also faithfully implement the Air Force’s newly revised policies governing religious expression,” the letter said.
The chaplains’ letter to the military noted the article “focuses primarily on his family’s efforts to help bring medical care to people in Mexico and Guatemala who would otherwise not receive it.”
“In the process, it provides the name of the organization that coordinates these trips and notes that some participants receive funding from their churches. And it quotes SMSgt. Gallo describing how a pastor gave two ladies ‘a message of hope’ after one of them was diagnosed as being in the final stages of congestive heart failure.”
It noted the Air Force recently clarified its policies governing religious expression, concluding “expression of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) shall not be prohibited unless the expression would have a real, not hypothetical, adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, health and safety, and mission accomplishment.”