On the heels of an Americans United complaint, the U.S. Air Force and Army distanced themselves from an evangelical Christian event held over Memorial Day weekend near Atlanta.
Promotional material about the three-day “Salute to the Troops” celebration strongly suggested it was co-sponsored by the Air Force and Army alongside several evangelical groups: Task Force Patriot USA (TFP), LifeWay Christian Stores and Holman Bible Outreach International. (LifeWay is the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.)
Americans United became concerned with the armed forces’ involvement after examining material published by Task Force Patriot USA. The group describes its mission as “sharing the fullness of life in Jesus Christ with all U.S. military, military veterans and families.” Its Web site says, “Christ is our Commander-in-Chief,” and its logo is a shield with the American and Christian flags bracketing a large Christian cross.
AU grew more concerned after seeing “Salute to the Troops” plugged as an official Air Force 60th anniversary celebration in TFP promotional materials and a military newspaper.
Promotional materials promised hourly flyovers by Air Force B-2 bombers and parachuting demonstrations by the Army’s Silver Wings Parachute Jump Team mixed in with Bible distributions, worship services, personal religious “testimony” by a uniformed B-2 pilot and revival-type sermons by a number of ministers.
In a May 23 letter to Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Acting Secretary of the Army Peter Geren, Americans United said the military should not endorse or promote the festival, which took place at Stone Mountain Park.
“The Air Force and the Army have crossed the line here: A reasonable observer, upon examining the promotional materials, the Robins Air Force Base newspaper, and the current program schedule, could not help but believe that the Army and Air Force fully support and endorse the Christian substance of the celebration,” AU’s letter insisted. “If you allow events to unfold as they are now scheduled, the message of governmental endorsement and in turn, the constitutional violation will be clear.”
After receiving the letter, military officials quickly distanced themselves from the event.
“Upon learning of the schedule of events sponsored by Task Force Patriot, Air Force officials began taking steps to avoid the appearance of any endorsement or preferential treatment of any religious faith or worship service,” an Air Force statement said, “The Air Force activities at Stone Mountain Park will take place apart from those of Task Force Patriot, and flyovers by Air Force aircraft will not be scheduled to occur during religious services. Any Air Force personnel who may participate in religious activities at Stone Mountain Park will do so in their individual capacities, not representing the Air Force.”
The Air Force said the B-2 pilot scheduled to speak, Maj. Brian D. Neal, could do so as a private citizen. He was instructed not to appear in uniform or on behalf of the Air Force.
The Washington Post subsequently reported that the Army issued a statement that said, “The Silver Wing Team is not participating in this event and we are unaware of any other Army involvement.”
Religious Right groups were not pleased. TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice issued a press statement after the event insisting that the military had no reason to back away from the festival.