Mikey Weinstein’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation
Every once in a while you come into contact with someone with a special something. Sometimes it’s a unique talent, perhaps in one of the arts. Sometimes its a gift for writing or speaking. Whatever it is, when it is on display, it sets them apart – it makes them memorable and oftentimes admirable. This week I came into contact with such a person. His name is Mikey Weinstein.
For a half hour, during a telephone interview conducted on a whim, I sat transfixed as I listened to Weinstein explain why he refuses to be a snowflake in an avalanche – a metaphor he used to describe what he sees as a pervasive disregard of the constitutionally guaranteed civil rights of United States armed forces personnel and veterans by their command. He lays out a well crafted detailed explanation of this claim in his book, No Snowflake In An Avalanche – a book I read over the weekend and one that I highly recommend.
Interviewing Mikey was like drinking from a fire hose. Hardly stopping to take a breath, he rattled off the events that lead to his almost 10-year journey that has culminated in the book as if he’d told the story a thousand times and he probably has – his foundation has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, BBC News, MSNBC, the Associated Press, the New York Times and others.
His story is not unlike most stories of injustice except that his battle is with what he characterizes as the single most lethal organization ever created, the United States Armed Forces. Mikey began our interview by saying, “this battle started because I was a pissed off parent. I found out that my sons were being called f..ing Jews and being accused of total complicity in the execution of Jesus Christ at the United States Air Force Academy.” Sensing I’d assume his kids were being taunted by a fellow cadet, he went on to explain that this mistreatment wasn’t just at the cadet level – no, he discovered that widespread systemic religious persecution was being tolerated at the highest levels at the U.S. Air force Academy. Says Weinstein, “I initially learned about it when Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ came out. But then I began to see that we are in a war that very few people know about. The fundamentalist Christian Taliban is inside the U.S. Military and it is creating an internal national security threat.”
Almost 10 years have passed since Weinstein learned that both his sons Casey and Curtis suffered religious persecution while at the Academy. In the years following that revelation, Weinstein was to learn the true scope of the problem. He discovered that thousands of military personnel were suffering under the tyranny of religious intolerance and oppression. An attorney by training, Mikey told me that he set out to rebuild the wall separating church and state. He established The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, dedicated to ensuring that all members of the United States Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom to which they are entitled by virtue of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Both in the book and in my interview, Weinstein gave examples of the kinds of incidents reported to him by well over 27,000 active duty United States soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, cadets and midshipmen, veterans, coast guard, and national guard reservists. These military personnel have come to his foundation for legal representation as they try to protect their careers and civil rights in a David and Goliath battle for justice. Through these military personnel, he learned about a fighter pilot who lost his wings simply because he refused to bow to Jesus during a prayer; U. S. Air force Nuclear Missile Launch officers being trained at Vandenberg Air force Base on how to launch missiles interspersed with biblical scripture; many thousands of military rifles with biblical scripture embedded in their metal casings; Marine scout sniper units bearing flags with the Nazi SS emblem just below the American flag; young cadets being lured into cults; and the list goes on.
Weinstein explained that in the civilian world it is a violation of Title VII of the U.S. Code for an employer to force an employee to adopt a certain religion, but he said, “it is a completely different situation in the U.S. Military. If you have sexual intercourse with someone other than your spouse in the U.S. Military, that is adultery and it is a felony. I spent 10 years as a JAG (Judge Advocate General) in the Air Force.” He said it is difficult for a subordinate in the military to repel being even gently evangelized by his or her military superior because unlike the civilian workplace, a military subordinate cannot say “get out of my face, sir or ma’am”. Said Mikey, “They can’t say no to a superior officer so they come to my foundation and we do it for them.”
I wondered what compelled him to take on the United States Armed Forces. Both of his boys graduated from the Academy. He could have let it go. But he told me that as a child he had been tremendously impacted by the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese and the lack of reaction from any of her neighbors. That made an indelible mark on Weinstein. Then there was an incident in his elementary school where a kid was beaten up and no one helped. Mikey said, “No one, not even me, helped the kid”.
That made him feel so guilty that he vowed he’d never be that kind of person. Says Weinstein, “With regard to the arc of justice in my life, I started out at point A where I made a commitment that wherever I saw anti-semitism I’d stamp it out. Now I’m at point B, when I see unconstitutional religious persecution of any stripe, I don’t care if I live or die, I’m not going to stand by and let it happen.”
I asked Weinstein about the many accolades he’s accumulated. He acknowledged his many awards including being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times, but said although many call him a hero, he likens what he does to what one would do if they saw a baby crawling across the street. He asked me, “What do you do when you’ve got a 19-year-old Islamic Marine whose gunnery sergeant has made it clear to her that the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim, so she has visions of committing suicide and leaving a note on our body asking the sergeant if she’s a good Muslim now.”
Then while we’re in the middle of his interview, he has to take another call – it was another military person calling from Afghanistan – needing help.
Weinstein is a man on fire but he strikes me as someone people either love or hate. Then I learn of the sacrifices he and his family made when they decided to pick up this mantle. The family pretty much gave up everything – their personal security, their financial security, their friendships — to fight this battle. They’ve had death threats, the windows shot out of their house and dead animals left at their front door, swastikas painted on their property, and the list goes on. They now have to have security travel with them. But Weinstein says he wouldn’t change a thing.
He tells me that most of the young men and women who come to MRFF have devoted their lives to protecting our freedoms. “They are deployed all over the world and they are there to protect our freedoms. But who will protect theirs?”he asks.