MRFF REBUTTAL – MRFF Volunteer Tobanna Barker Killer Response to Chuck Wooten

Chuck Wooten’s article in the Arizona Daily Independent

Dear Mr. Wooten:

I am a long-time supporter and volunteer of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (“MRFF”). I am dismayed by your misinformed remarks about MRFF and its founder, Mikey Weinstein, which you espouse in your May 27, 2015 article, “The ‘Taliban’ In Our Midst, A Rebuttal.” I understand that your article is an editorial expressing your opinion, which you certainly have the right to express. However, many of your claims are simply false or plainly erroneous due to a misunderstanding of the First Amendment.

As an initial matter, we at MRFF do not have “hearts so hard toward Christ it’s almost biblical.” In fact, nearly 41,000 MRFF clients – including Marines, soldiers, sailors, midshipmen, reserves, cadets, and veterans – are Christians, as are many of its board members and volunteers. Second, Maj. Gen. Olson did much more than simply express his religious beliefs in a religious forum – he unlawfully endorsed one religion over others in a manner constituting a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

You are correct that the exact words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution. You are also correct that those words were first used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury in 1802. However, these facts do not negate the reality that the concept of the separation of church and state is a very real part of our Constitutional jurisprudence and, therefore, much more than mere “liberal buzzwords.” The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that Jefferson’s words “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment.” Reynolds v. U.S., 98 U.S. 145 (1879). See also Everson v. Board of Edu., 330 U.S. 1 (1947) (“In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.”).

It not uncommon for terms and concepts, while not specifically included in the text of the Constitution, to become vital standards in applying the Bill of Rights. For example, the Fifth Amendment right not to be compelled to testify against yourself does not specifically provide that a confession will not be admissible in court unless the suspect is told, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law.” Yet, this well-known phrase is accepted as the standard when determining whether a criminal defendant’s Fifth Amendment right has been violated. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

Despite your claim, “Unlike my liberal brothers-in-arms, I’ll use specifics,” you proceed to dismiss Col. Wilkerson’s statement that military officers surrender the privilege of publicly professing religious beliefs as a “lie” without citing any source supporting your conclusion. Contrary to your assertion, the U.S. Supreme Court has actually confirmed that the rights of the Constitution are limited within the military:

While military personnel are not excluded from First Amendment protection, the fundamental necessity for obedience, and the consequent necessity for discipline, may render permissible within the military that which would be constitutionally impermissible outside.

Parker v. Levy, 417 U.S. 733, 758-759 (1974) (limiting the right of freedom of speech within the military). The U.S. Supreme Court has set forth a test to determine whether particular actions violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: An act or policy of a government entity or person acting in the capacity of an agent of the government violates the Establishment Clause if any one of the following is shown: (1) its purpose is not secular; (2) its principal/primary effect either advances or inhibits religion; or (3) it fosters an excessive entanglement with religion. Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). The application of this test to specific situations explains how some public expressions of personal religious beliefs, even by military leaders, (such as Gen. Colin Powell’s statement that he was blessed with a Christian education and upbringing) are permissible under the First Amendment while others (such as Maj. Gen. Olson’s statement that leaders in the Department of Defense “need to humbly depend on Christ”) constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause. Consequently, Col. Wilkerson and MRFF are not “hypocrites,” but rather have a firm grasp on the time, place, and manner limitations on the right of religious expression.

The mission of MRFF is to protect the religious freedom of all soldiers, sailors, Marines, cadets, and veterans. One way MRFF works to protect these service members is by ensuring that military leaders adhere to the above-referenced mandates of the Establishment Clause. Its work does not carry “a bull’s eye aimed directly at the Cross of Jesus,” as evidenced by the fact that the majority of its clients are Christians. You state that Christians “have heard this song before.” I assure you that the attempt to falsely portray MRFF as fighting Christianity is a song MRFF has heard many times. However, ensuring adherence to the Constitution is a far cry from persecuting Christians. The fact that Maj. Gen. Olson’s statements endorsed Christianity, as opposed to any other religion, has no bearing on whether he breached the mandates of the Constitution, as well as Air Force Regulations, when he made them in the time, place, and manner he did.

I also want to briefly address your claim that MRFF somehow believes “it’s okay to murder in the name of [A]llah, but not okay to profess to be a believer in Christ.” Your portrayal of MRFF’s response after the tragic shootings at Fort Hood at the hands of Nidal Hasan is a gross misrepresentation. Neither Mikey Weinstein nor MRFF “excused” the violence that took place because Hasan was “picked on,” as you suggest. To the contrary, Mr. Weinstein specifically stated, “What he did is reprehensible, and goes against everything the American military stands for.” If you or going to criticize the actions of MRFF, you at least owe it to your readers to accurately convey the facts.

In summary, MRFF is dedicated to ensuring that military leaders act in accordance with the limitations of the First Amendment and military regulations when expressing religious beliefs. Its actions concerning Maj. Gen. Olson’s speech were based on well-established Constitutional law – not a desire to persecute Christians. I hope I have shed some light on this situation for you.

Blessed be,

Tobanna Barker
MRFF Volunteer

* Tobanna Barker graduated Cum Laude from Seattle University School of Law. She practiced law in Washington State and New Mexico before devoting herself to a career in writing.

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  1. Darrell McClanahan

    How beautifully and thoughtfully written! I’m sure that Chuck Wooten has now seen the light and that he will now see that this response is published in his paper along with a contrite apology! Well, maybe not. What’s that old saying to the effect, he who is convinced against his will is of the same opinion still? What would Jesus say about those who want to speak for him and do it so loudly but who get it all so wrong?

  2. Jim

    Ms. Barker, your response is well researched, logical and accurate. However, I fear it will only confuse the radical extremist Christians. One must observe that they have already accepted as fact a mythology that is devoid of fact or reason and replaces hate and vitrol for the love Jesus professed.

    I fear your erudition will only bewilder them. I think Jesus would be ashamed of many of those today who claim to speak in his name.

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