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Group Wants Base's Faith-Based Leadership Summit Investigated

Senior Airman Ricky Rivers, 88th Air Base Wing chaplain assistant, holds a keychain for airmen and families during a spiritual fitness and lunch briefing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, July 12, 2017. Michelle Gigante/Air Force
Senior Airman Ricky Rivers, 88th Air Base Wing chaplain assistant, holds a keychain for airmen and families during a spiritual fitness and lunch briefing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, July 12, 2017. Michelle Gigante/Air Force

An advocacy group has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the Air Force's 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to turn over documents pertaining to a faith-based "Global Leadership Summit" held at the base this week.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation says it is requesting all documents -- including email exchanges -- regarding the summit in the matter of public interest. It claims some of those documents violated Air Force rules.

Last week, the group demanded Col. Bradley McDonald, 88th Air Base Wing commander, investigate why the wing's chaplain's office sent an email inviting all Wright-Patterson military and civilian members to attend the summit, partially sponsored by the Willow Creek Association of the Willow Creek Community Church.

Members of the church, which is located in a Chicago suburb, traveled to the Ohio base to host the summit.

The email, obtained by MRFF, states: " 'The Global Leadership Summit' is a 2-day live simulcast, faith-based event -- hosted by world class faculty drawn from corporate, academic, and religious settings. The event will be held 10-11 August, 0900-1630 and is for everyone interested in growing their leadership skills!"

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"The MRFF has received over 40 contacts-of-concern and client requests for its intervention from Wright-Patterson AFB military and civilian personnel under your command regarding a recent base-wide email invitation sent from the Wright-Patterson Chaplains Office," MRFF president and founder Mikey Weinstein said last Friday.

Marie Vanover, a spokeswoman for the base, told Military.com the event was held as planned.

"We are aware of the Freedom of Information Request," she said Thursday.

Demand for Documents

Weinstein wants the Air Force to turn over the documents related to the event in 20 days' time and is specifically asking for:

  • All records relating to the 88th ABW Chapel Team's invitation to the summit, emailed on July 17, 2017, from "88 ABW/HC Organizational Mailbox" to "Wright-Patterson WP_All Personnel" (WPAFB.ALL.DL@us.af.mil);
  • All records relating to communications between the 88th ABW Chapel Team or any individual chaplain at Wright- Patterson AFB and the "Willow Creek Association" or "Willow Creek Community Church";
  • All records relating to arrangements regarding funding for Wright-Patterson AFB personnel to attend the Willow Creek Association's 2017 "Global Leadership Summit";
  • All records relating to communications between the 88th ABW Chapel Team or any individual chaplain at Wright- Patterson AFB and any other Wright-Patterson AFB offices or personnel regarding the summit.

Vanover said she could not speak on behalf of the base's FOIA office when asked if it could produce the documents in 20 days.

The FOIA process requires the government to respond to a petitioner in 20 days' time. However, a response does not mean said documents requested will be produced in that time limit. In some cases, FOIA request documents may take years to deliver.

Other Faiths Overlooked?

While MRFF's clients in this matter span all religions -- the majority are Protestant or Roman Catholic, Weinstein said, he described Willow Creek as "a well-known fundamentalist Protestant Evangelical mega-church enterprise" focused on evangelical Christianity.

Weinstein said the invitation for the event overlooked other faiths by not specifying a targeted religious audience.

"This is clearly showing favoritism to one [faith] over another," Weinstein told Military.com on Thursday. "Holding it by itself is one issue, but how you market it, how you sent it out is completely the key issue here.

"If this was [an Islamic] group or an atheist group or a satanic group [all protected under the First Amendment] putting this on to be a 'leadership conference,' there would be blood in the streets," he said.

If the Air Force advertises a faith-based event, he said, it should be specifically "limited to those persons worshiping within the denominational constraints."

In this case, the chaplain's email invitation "creates confusion and expressly violates Air Force directives regarding the purpose of the event and disregards [Air Force] regulations addressing the appropriate targeting of 'advertising' for religious worship and education," Weinstein said.

But Vanover said the email did not violate regulations. "The email advertising this event has been consistent with the chaplain corps' mission," she said Thursday.

During Duty Hours

In addition, by requesting airmen attend the event on duty, Weinstein said it involved U.S. taxpayer dollars.

"This was being put on during duty hours," he said. "If they're being excused to do this [while on duty], you and I are presumed to be paying for it."

Weinstein quoted Air Force Instruction 52-101.4.4, which states members can make exceptions for religious worship only "when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on mission accomplishment, military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline" and pending commander approval.

The wing chaplain's request had service members leaving their posts for the summit at the base chapel's Religious Education Facility, according to the email.

Regarding leave time for the event, Vanover said, "Air Force personnel follow Air Force guidance and instructions."

She continued, "Wright-Patterson places a high value on the rights of Air Force members to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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