An Open Letter to U.S. Air Force Chaplain Sonny Hernandez

To Captain Sonny Hernandez, Chaplain for the U.S. Air Force Reserves:

Dear Captain Hernandez,

This is a response to your recent misguided rant about the “duties” of Christian military chaplains to “avoid supporting or accommodating evil.” You make it clear that by “evil” you mean the American values of religious pluralism and the constitutional right of non-Christians and the nonreligious to freely exercise their beliefs. Your ideas are unworthy and un-American.

The tirade was meant to encourage other military chaplains to follow your lead and turn their backs on the Constitution — the very document that you and they have sworn an oath to uphold and defend — by actively denigrating non-Christian service members. This is a shameful call to action that will actively undermine unit cohesion and the readiness of our armed forces.

You begin your diatribe by distinguishing between “True” Christians (those who are devoted to your interpretation of the bible and “hate the things that God hates”) and “Counterfeit” Christians (those who “appeal to the Constitution” and “support everyone’s right to practice their faith regardless if they worship a god different from ours”). You declare that military chaplains “accommodate evil” if they accommodate the men and women of our armed services who are not Christian.

Midway through your rant, you swing and miss at an incredibly easy question that you pose to yourself: “Is it wrong for a professing Christian service member to say, ‘I support the rights of all Americans to practice their faith since the Constitution protects their rights?’ ”

The easy, correct, obvious answer — the one demanded by your oath to uphold the Constitution — is, “No, it’s not wrong to support the right of free religious exercise, or any of the other rights enshrined in our Constitution.”

Your answer? “Absolutely!” Your disrespect for the very principles on which this nation was founded is appalling.

As a military chaplain you have a duty to aid our service members in the free exercise of their religious beliefs. Accommodating the free exercise of religion is, in fact, your only job. Military chaplains exist to grant our service members access to a church or religious leader of their chosen religion while they live on base or travel overseas.

While the military chaplaincy has unnecessarily expanded and in many cases now provides redundant access to Christian chaplains in areas where private Christian churches are available, the justification for military chaplains nevertheless remains rooted — tenuous though those legal roots may be — in the constitutional principle of free religious exercise. Your call to openly disregard the Constitution is particularly hypocritical, given that the Constitution justifies your existence.

You are encouraging military chaplains to abuse their government positions to promote your particular brand of Christianity to atheist and minority religious service members. This is a dangerous proposal that disrespects the constitutional separation of religion and government and undermines the well being of our non-Christian military members.

U.S. service members have freedom of religion, which includes freedom from religious promotion by the government. By conflating the difference between private belief and government action — the First Amendment only protects the former — you sow confusion and perpetuate the type of overt proselytization by military chaplains that has become far too common.

Earlier this year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to the Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire after a guardsman complained to us that on-base ceremonies regularly include chaplain-led bible readings and prayer. These are not optional services taking place in a chapel; service members are often required to attend these events as part of their official duties. This is a serious violation of the First Amendment rights of our country’s service members, a violation that you appear to embrace, since it benefits your particular religion.

After bashing the constitutional rights of non-Christians, you bizarrely choose to make an appeal to the constitutional rights of military chaplains. You write, “Military chaplains are not forced to do anything that would violate what their conscience dictates,” which is poorly phrased but basically true. Military chaplains have the right to freely exercise their religion too. But they don’t have the right to force their personal beliefs on others. And they also don’t have a right or an obligation to be military chaplains. Freedom of religious belief does not include the freedom to blow off the duties you’re being paid to perform while continuing to receive a government paycheck.

Your final straw man sets up a false dichotomy. You claim that your opponents want military chaplains either to accommodate “all service members” or else “resign from the military.” There is a world of choice between these two extremes! How about we find military chaplains who are willing to preach to those who welcome them without jamming religion down the throats of the more than 30 percent of service members who are non-Christian, including the 23 percent who have no religious preference? There are indeed many atheists/agnostics/humanists in foxholes who should be protected from religious intrusion and coercion while on duty.

All servicemen and women, chaplains included, must swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Your recent post was meant to undermine that hallowed document and the rights it protects. You are unfit to wear the uniform and, if you had the courage of your loudly proclaimed religious convictions, you would resign immediately. Shame on you.

Yours Sincerely,

Sam Grover, Associate Legal Counsel

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. We depend on member support, please join today.

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