Members of Grand Forks Air Force Base raised concerns after high-ranking officials sent an email Tuesday that offered an opportunity to volunteer for the Salvation Army during duty hours.
Mikey Weinstein, founder of Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said about 40 military members contacted him because they said they felt the base was showing religious favoritism. He alleged the offer violated their constitutional rights by merging church and state and is in violation of the Air Force Standards.
The Salvation Army is an international Christian church and charitable organization.
"There's no problem with the Salvation Army," Weinstein said. "The problem is with the Air Force singling it out and endorsing a nonfederal entity, but more importantly, this is a direct violation of the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment."
Weinstein's organization, based in New Mexico, specializes in military violations involving the separation of church and state.
The First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Air Force Standards say leaders "must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief or absence of belief."
Military members felt pressure to volunteer because the email was sent to them from higher-ranked members, Weinstein said. Service members declined to comment directly, fearing retaliation.
Weinstein said many of the members are of Christian faith but felt the favoritism was wrong.
"It's not an anti-Christian thing, but it is a pro-Constitution thing," Weinstein said.
Military members are allowed to volunteer during duty for organizations that are not religiously affiliated and can volunteer for religious organizations on their own time, Weinstein said. Airmen wear their uniforms while on duty, including if they are volunteering during duty hours.
"The problem is it's during the duty day. That's when the American people are paying for members of the military to provide national defense, not support one particular version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through an organization like the Salvation Army," he said.
Weinstein raised concerns with base officials in Grand Forks but was directed to the 25th Air Force in Texas, which oversees the Grand Forks base. Sonja S. Coderre, director of public affairs responded to Weinstein with a statement that did not address his concerns but said Airmen "have donated thousands of hours in community service across a wide array of charities, to include the United Way, Humane Society, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Salvation Army, American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Wounded Warrior Project, just to name a few."
"In each and every case, we seek to do so in a way that upholds our Air Force core values, governing guidance and applicable law," Coderre said via email.
She did not respond directly to the Herald's questions about whether involvement with the Salvation Army posed a potential rights violation.
Weinstein said the problem had a simple solution-to send a follow-up email apologizing and explaining the error. He said he's frustrated the Air Force has ignored the concern and plans to file a formal grievance within the next 10-20 days with the Department of Defense Inspector General.