Church-State Crusader Takes Aim at ROTC

By Rebecca Spence

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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In the latest battle in his war against proselytizing in the ranks of America’s military, Air Force veteran and church-state separation activist Mikey Weinstein is taking aim at the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

Weinstein, who sued the Air Force in 2005 for religious coercion, is calling attention to a passage in the Junior ROTC’s curriculum that questions the legitimacy of the separation between church and state. Researchers at Weinstein’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a not-for-profit group he founded to protect First Amendment rights in the military, discovered the passage in an educational guide distributed by the Defense Department to the military’s high-school leadership training program.

Weinstein, who represents the second generation of his family to graduate from the Air Force Academy, sees this newest revelation as but one example of evangelical Christianity’s creeping encroachment in all branches of the armed forces. The 52-year-old attorney from New Mexico has made it his mission — in an almost evangelical sense — to beat back what he sees as a campaign to Christianize the military.

In October 2005, Weinstein fired his opening salvo when he sued the Air Force. That suit came after his son Curtis, a cadet at the academy, told Weinstein that he had been subjected to antisemitic harassment, and evidence indicating a pattern of proselytizing emerged. The case was dismissed last year by a federal district court judge on legal technicalities, but Weinstein, a lifelong Republican, is eager to file a bevy of new lawsuits. Among the possibilities, Weinstein said, is a court case against the Junior ROTC.

“This is the 13th stroke of a crazy clock,” Weinstein said. Referring to the JROTC’s textbook, he added: “It’s not just religious predation. This is an example of the metaphysical rape of our youth, the ones being prepped for the military in the Junior ROTC.”

Weinstein also said that, in recent weeks, a powerhouse Washington law firm, WilmerHale, finished formulating a far-reaching litigation strategy for his foundation.

The Junior ROTC textbook chapter, titled “You the People — The Citizen Action Group Process,” recommends that cadets read an excerpt from an article that makes the argument that Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists — often cited as the basis for the separation between government and religion — was solely intended to keep the state from meddling in the church, and not the other way around.

“In summary, the ‘separation’ phrase so frequently invoked today was rarely mentioned by any of the Founders; and even Jefferson’s explanation of his phrase is diametrically opposed to the manner in which courts apply it today,” the textbook reads.

A Junior ROTC spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

This is the type of discovery that keeps Weinstein, a former Reagan White House lawyer who worked on the Iran-Contra defense, plugging away. A one-time boxer, Weinstein has the pugnacious constitution of a pit bull. And with his compact, stocky build and dour grimace, he even bears a slight resemblance to one.

Weinstein’s fiery rhetoric — one of his most oft-repeated phrases is, “My job is to lay down a withering field of fire, take no prisoners and leave sucking chest wounds” — and in-your-face tactics haven’t always won him friends in the organized Jewish community. And he isn’t shy about naming those organizations that, he said, have lost their “fighting spirit.”

According to Weinstein, Jewish leaders such as the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman and the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris do American Jews no favors by not speaking out more on the issue of evangelicals proselytizing in the military. Neither Foxman nor Harris returned calls from the Forward seeking comment.

Marc Stern, who frequently handles constitutional church-state issues as general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, described Weinstein as a “mixed bag.”

“I thought he was unduly confrontational about the Air Force guidelines, and I think that comes from years of improper activity going on uncorrected,” Stern said. “But,” he added, “I don’t find it a particularly useful way of dealing with government officials.”

Still, Stern notes, “Almost no cause is advanced without somebody who is not meshugene about the cause and prepared to do battle.”

Stern also pointed to Weinstein’s unflappable military credentials as the reason that veterans and armed forces personnel turn to him for help and not to the major Jewish groups.

On any given day, the peripatetic activist fields up to 250 calls from military troops, as well as from members of the media. Weinstein also receives a steady stream of death threats — on average, three to four a week.

Those threats increased markedly in late April, Weinstein said, during the lead-up to a debate at the Air Force Academy in which he and Jay Sekulow, a messianic Jew who serves as chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, argued the proper bounds of religion in the military. Weinstein also expressed concern that those threats would increase when Curtis, the last of his sons to graduate from the Academy, receives his diploma May 30.

The Air Force Academy debate not withstanding, Weinstein’s public appearances are most often funding appeals for his nascent foundation. He is in the midst of a national tour of sorts, hitting some synagogue groups, but mostly invite-only gatherings at private homes, to get out his message. Weinstein said that he hopes to raise $1 million a year to support his work. So far, he said, the fundraising effort, which he puts “in the six figures,” has been buoyed by joint appearances with foundation trustee Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who famously accused the Bush administration of outing his wife as a covert CIA agent.

At his appearances, Weinstein is also hawking his 2006 book, “With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military.” That tome will soon be outdated by a sequel, tentatively titled “Taking God to Court.”

Even when Weinstein is signing books, his fierce commitment to America’s armed forces is apparent. In a nod to his military roots, Weinstein wears his class ring from the Air Force Academy, where he and his wife, Bonnie, were married in the school chapel’s only Jewish wedding. The ring, with a prominent aqua-marine stone set in the center, is inscribed with two words: “Never Again.”

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