Watertown — In reading their essays, it doesn’t take long to figure out where some writers stand on the removal last month of several videos posted on a social media platform representing Fort Drum soldiers.
U.S. Army Maj. Scott Ingram and Capt. Amy Smith, two chaplains who serve on the post, put two videos each onto the official Facebook page of the 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade. Eight soldiers expressed their objections to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which contacted Fort Drum leadership and requested the videos be removed. The MRFF said the videos violated the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
Mikey Weinstein, MRFF’s founder and president, called them “illicit proselytizing videos” that should not have been posted to “the official command Facebook page of the 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade.” Fort Drum leaders deemed the videos inappropriate and ordered them to be removed.
Chris Rodda, MRFF’s senior research director, made an interesting point in an article published April 20 by DailyKos.com. She wrote: “The Fort Drum Chapel Facebook page has only 348 followers. The Facebook page of Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade has 7,828 followers. If you were a chaplain bent on proselytizing, which page would you want your videos on? You’d want those 7,828 soldiers and family members to get your message to ‘walk with God’ while ‘asking God, where are you, where are you in the midst of this COVID-19?’ Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has been seeing an uptick in a particular type of complaint — overt proselytizing videos on official military Facebook pages.”
Chaplains in the armed forces have a job to do, and the novel coronavirus pandemic has everyone worried. So it’s understandable that ministers will use whatever assets they have available to reach out to military personnel.
But the MRFF raised a valid point about where these videos appeared. To the extent that it’s proper for the government to dedicate resources for spiritual purposes, it’s vital that this not be construed as an endorsement of any religious beliefs. So the Fort Drum Chapel Facebook page would have been a better spot for these videos rather than the site for the 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade.
However, not everyone agrees with this assessment.
“The U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade has acquiesced to demands from a secular advocacy group to remove prayer videos by its chaplains from the brigade’s main Facebook page,” wrote Calvin Freiburger on Monday in a post for LifeSiteNews.com. “Claiming to have received complaints about the videos from eight active-duty soldiers in the Division, the so-called Military Religious Freedom Foundation sent a complaint demanding that the ‘illicit proselytizing videos’ be removed from the main page (which has more than 7,800 followers) and relegated to the Fort Hill Chapel Facebook page (which has fewer than 400). … The MRFF is most well-known for pressuring the U.S. military to quash benign, non-coercive expressions of faith. It has taken credit for getting Bibles removed from Missing Man Tables across the country, demanded punishment for chaplains who wore their uniforms to an event hosted by a religious liberty group and agitated for heavy restrictions on proselytizing by military chaplains.”
Catholic League President Bill Donohue commented: “Weinstein complained to officers of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, and they yielded. Yet they had no need to — they were deceived by the false arguments made by Weinstein. There is nothing ‘illicit’ about the mere invocation of God by military chaplains. Had an atheist religion-hating member of the armed forces posted a video on Facebook celebrating Lucifer, Weinstein would have defended it as freedom of speech. Military chaplains do not lose their twin First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech by posting religious commentary on a private media outlet. Moreover, the separation of church and state provision of the First Amendment only applies to what government cannot do. Every president, acting as commander in chief, has invoked God, beginning with George Washington. To say that military chaplains have no right to identify themselves as officers when they engage in religious commentary is to say they have no public right to exercise their freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Only fascists think this way.”
In an April 24 blog post on Patheos.com, Bethany Blankley wrote: “Facebook has been censoring for a while, no longer allowing free speech, and targeting Christians specifically. This time, they took down U.S. Army chaplain’s messages of encouragement to viewers. Four recent videos involving chaplains posting messages were taken down after a complaint was filed stating that the messages ironically violated the First Amendment, the very amendment that protects such speech.”
Writing April 25 for the Washington Sentinel, Warner Todd Huston proclaimed: “Facebook has removed several prayers posted by several chaplains in the U.S. Army after a Christian-hating group complained that they represented ‘illicit proselytizing’ of Christianity. Facebook removed four videos recorded by chaplains Capt. Amy Smith and Maj. Scott Ingram which had been posted to the Facebook page of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade at Fort Drum, New York. Facebook moved to delete the ‘offensive’ prayers after the anti-Christian group Military Religious Freedom Foundation demanded that the social media giant remove them. The group falsely claimed that the videos were a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. … The Constitution gives us all freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion.”
To correct claims by both Blankley and Huston, Facebook did not remove these videos. They were taken down by members of the Fort Drum command team.
Donohue was mistaken by claiming that the videos appeared on “a private media outlet.” This is the official Facebook page for the 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade, which is a public entity and represents all its members — many of whom are not religious.
Donohue wrote that “the separation of church and state provision of the First Amendment only applies to what government cannot do.” Yes! And it prohibits the government from endorsing any religious beliefs.
For Huston to write, “The Constitution gives us all freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion,” is to misunderstand its meaning. There is no such thing as freedom of religious if we can’t choose freedom from religion.
Governments that favor some religious expressions over others will ultimately discriminate against those who do not share these views. So to enforce the separation of church and state, it’s essential for the government to take an agnostic stance on the matter.
That’s what the U.S. Constitution does. We know this is true because some of the most vocal opponents to our nation’s charter when it was first proposed were Christians. They denounced it as a godless document that left spiritual questions to be decided by private citizens for themselves.
The MRFF was justified in objecting to the placement of these videos on the 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade’s Facebook page. This doesn’t address all the problems that result from the government’s improper flirtation with religion, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.