The Air Force Academy apologized Thursday night after it was accused of religious intolerance for promoting Operation Christmas Child – a program designed to send holiday gifts to impoverished children around the world.
Operation Christmas Child said they expect to send more than 8 million shoe box gifts to underprivileged children in 100 countries. Around 60,000 churches and 60,000 community groups in the United States are participating.
MikeyWeinstein, of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said an evangelical Christian message is also included in the boxes.
“This is a proselytizing entity of Franklin Graham,” said the group’s president, Mikey Weinstein. He filed a complaint on behalf of 132 Academy personnel including two sets of Muslim-American parents.
Brig. Gen. Richard Clark, the Commandant of Cadets, released a statement Friday explaining why the Air Force Academy retracted the e-mail promoting the Christian ministry.
Under orders from Air Force headquarters, Clark said only the Chaplain Corps is responsible for advertising faith-based programs.
“The cadets had nothing but good intentions, but this was something that should have started with the Chaplains, not the Cadet Wing,” Clark said. “That doesn’t mean the cadets can’t volunteer for the Christmas toy drive, they can participate through the Cadet Chaplain Corps.”
The attack on Operation Christmas Child has generated outrage across the country.
“It’s another anti-faith effort that we are seeing by this administration,” said Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), who just pushed a congressional effort to reaffirm “In God We Trust” as the national motto.
“This is beyond political correctness,” Forbes told Fox News. “This is an anti-faith mode that we see over and over again coming from this administration and the people serving in it.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told Fox News that this is evidence that the Obama administration “has engaged in a culture war beyond measure.”
“We see here the collateral damage – the fallout of religious freedom and the attack on Christian organizations that are simply reaching out to help those in need,” Perkins said. “This is a long pattern under this administration under a president who apologized for everything that is American.”
“It’s so outrageous,” said Jordan Sekulow an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice. He said the controversy is an example of the cultural shift happening in the United States.
“This is a perfect example of how heartless these groups are when it comes to defending their anti-religion position,” Sekulow said. “It’s not about the First Amendment. It’s about a real hatred of religious people and people of faith that they would go so far as to stop an assistance program like Operation Christmas Child.”
Weinstein refuted that allegation.
“We are not trying to take shoe boxes of toys and candy away from kids,” Weinstein told Fox News. “But this is clearly an egregious Constitutional mistake.”
The Academy sent an e-mail to the entire cadet wing inviting them to participate in the Operation Christmas Child project.
“As the holidays approach, we have the opportunity to provide the joy of Christmas to impoverished Children around the world,” read the e-mail sent to some 4,400 cadets and provided to Fox News. “PLEASE, PLEASE CONSIDER SPENDING SOME OF YOUR VALUABLE TIME AND MONEY TO LOVE ON A KID AROUND THE WORLD!!.”
Weinstein said he was alerted to the program on Wednesday after he was notified by an upset cadet.
“The cadet sent an e-mail saying, ‘This just shows how our military is supporting one religion – which is Christianity,’” Weinstein said.
He later received a telephone call from Brig. Gen. Clark.
“He said it was a mistake and he would fix it,” Weinstein said. “Lady Liberty is smiling tonight. This is a victory for the Constitution.”
“We agree that it was inappropriate,” Academy spokesman Lt. Col. John Bryan told the Colorado Gazette. He told the newspaper that the initial e-mail was sent by cadets without the knowledge of senior leaders.
Late yesterday, cadets received the following e-mail retracting the promotion of Operation Christmas Child:
“My apologies for the below message as it was not sent to the proper audience. The Cadet Chaplain Corps will be resending through the proper channels and to the proper audience.
Weinstein said he doesn’t have a problem with secular toy drives – but Graham’s, he said, crossed the line.
“Franklin Graham is a fundamentalist – a total enemy of the Constitution – an absolutely incredible Islamophobe,” Weinstein said.
He argued that Operation Christmas Child should have been promoted through the Academy’s chaplains – not the entire Academy. And that’s exactly where the project rests – in the hands of the chaplains.
“The kids will still get their toys,” he said acknowledging that it will only be promoted to a smaller subset of people.
General Clark said thousands of cadets routinely volunteer for various projects.
“Our cadets are outstanding young men and women who consistently give up their time, to include parts of their spring and summer breaks, to help people in need across the country,” he said. “The character of our cadets is second to none.”
Operation Christmas Child said they were unaware of the controversy at the Air Force Academy.