By Chaplain Sonny Hernandez
According to Miltary.com, “Pentagon investigators are weighing another review of the Air Force’s chief of chaplains after a watchdog group criticized the service for failing to discipline the officer for giving a blessing during a religious-sponsored event.”
The Air Force chief of chaplains, Maj. Gen. Dondi Costin, has been scrutinized for praying at a Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty (a 501c3 organization) event to honor a public figure for defending and advancing religious liberty in the military. This was not a political event. The event’s emphasis was religious liberty.
Why would anyone want to impede on the rights of a military chaplain to provide prayer to honor a public figure for defending religious liberty most Americans cherish? Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) would, since the mere reference to God, Jesus, prayer, or the Bible appears to offend him. Weinstein has historically lambasted Bible-believing Christians in the U.S. military for expressing their constitutional right to exercise their faith and lauds these as “achievements” on his website, which is not defending freedom of religion, but freedom from religion.
“We asked the Air Force IG to examine both the act of giving the benediction and its content. After conducting interviews and gathering additional facts, the Air Force IG found that Maj. Gen. Costin’s benediction was a generic, non-sectarian prayer seeking God’s blessing on the event’s honoree. …”
The response from the Defense Department IG was paradoxical. It is encouraging that Chaplain Costin will not undergo any sanctions because of his prayer, but it is also disconcerting to know that his prayer was analyzed to meet the IG standards or approbation for prayer.
The response from the IG also raises some important questions that pertain to religious liberty. What right and by what authority does the DOD IG have to analyze the content of a military chaplain’s prayer? Another important question was raised by Christianfighterpilot.com: “What regulation, law, or policy dictates the statutorily correct content of a chaplain’s prayer by which the IG will levy its assessment?”
It does not matter if “the Air Force IG found that Maj. Gen. Costin’s benediction was a generic, non-sectarian prayer.” There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution, Air Force policies, rules, regulations, or the law that prohibits a chaplain from praying sectarian prayers. Even if Chaplain Costin provided a sectarian prayer, he would have been well within his constitutional right to pray according to his sincerely held theological convictions that are supported by his ecclesiastical endorsing agency. Air Force Policy Directive 52-1 (3.6.2.) concurs this as it states that, “Chaplains must adhere to the requirements of their endorsing religious organizations.”
It is important to note that the government cannot require military chaplains to redact the content of their prayers, or expect them to nullify the tenets of their faith just to pray in such a way that is palatable for others. Consider the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Town of Greece v. Galloway, which was a victory for religious liberty. In this Supreme Court decision, the axiom was laid for those disgruntled individuals who wish to veto religious speech just because they do not want any reference to a particular deity:
“The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian. …
“Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum. …”
Military.com did not indicate how the IG received Chaplain Costin’s prayer notes. How should military chaplains respond if they are ever asked to surrender their prayer notes to be examined for content to determine if it was a non-sectarian prayer or not? I would have an arduous time surrendering prayer notes because I always pray extemporaneously, and non-sectarian prayers are not applicable to me. I always pray in the Name of Jesus, in both public and private settings, and this will never change, regardless whether my prayer is approved or not.
If you are a military chaplain, do not worry about legal threats for praying according to your conscience as a result of Chaplain Costin’s predicament. If you are ever accosted for your faith by a watchdog group like the MRFF, ignore them and they will flee. Please see an article I have written that explains how to faithfully respond to one of their attacks. You have every right to pray according to your faith convictions, despite the impetuous legal threats that could arise from anti-God advocacy groups. The Constitution protects your rights.
Americans should remain perplexed as to why the Defense Department has made it its business to examine a chaplain’s prayer for content. Free exercise is never restricted to the presuppositions or opinions of the DOD IG to determine if a prayer is palatable or not. Free exercise of religion is applicable to all Americans, guaranteed in the First Amendment, and no one has the right to suppress this inviolable liberty many have died to secure. An observer may conclude that the government may impede on the rights of Christian service members if anti-God advocacy groups make legal demands to eviscerate all vestiges of religious expression just because it does not consort with their eschewed understanding of the Constitution.
The rights of all Americans matter, not just those who complain, become offended, or make threats because they are at enmity with God.
Chaplain (Capt.) Sonny Hernandez is a U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. In April 2015, he was selected as the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Individual Mobilization Augmentee Company Grade Officer of the Year, and in May 2016, he was selected as 445th Airlift Wing CGO of the Quarter, first quarter. Hernandez earned a Doctorate from Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are solely his and do not necessarily represent the views of any government, military, or religious organization. Sonny Hernandez wrote this article as a civilian on his own time on an issue of public interest.