Friday, October 21, 2016
Col. John C. Walker
Commander, 39th Air Base Wing
Incirlik Air Base
5th SOK Street
Dear Colonel John C. Walker:
We recently received your “response” to our concerns regarding the published religious statements of Lt. Col. Michael Kersten. Unfortunately, your “response” tells us nothing about whether you take the complaints of our MRFF clients seriously or whether you plan to take any action to remedy this situation. Instead, you simply recite the obvious: that Airmen are “sworn to protect our rights and liberties as Americans, including the right of all Airmen to practice their religious faith or to practice no faith at all.” Essentially, your letter is the equivalent of a signed glamour shot sent by a celebrity to everyone who writes to them, regardless of the content of the correspondence.
Perhaps you misunderstood our position concerning Lt. Col. Kersten’s statements and our demand for appropriate and visible consequences. This demand is not a matter of punishing him for his Christian faith, nor is it a matter of insisting he remain silent about his religious beliefs. As stated in our previous letter, MRFF both supports and would vigorously defend Lt. Col. Kersten’s right to believe as he chooses and to express those beliefs in the proper time, place, and manner. This demand is a matter of ensuring that all religious expression – particularly by military leaders – conforms to the mandates of the Constitution and Air Force Regulations. While Lt. Col. Kersten certainly has the right to share his religious beliefs, he is not entitled to publicly declare that all of his decisions are based his personal faith, rather than upon his oath of office and allegiance to the U.S. Constitution.
While the members of the military are not excluded from the protection granted by the First Amendment, the different character of the military community and of the military mission requires a different application of those protections…The fundamental necessity for obedience, and the consequent necessity for imposition of discipline, may render permissible within the military that which would be constitutionally impermissible outside it…Speech that is protected in the civil population may nonetheless undermine the effectiveness of response to command. If it does, it is constitutionally unprotected.
Parker v. Levy, 417 U.S. 733, 94 S.Ct. 2547 (1974). Lt. Col. Kersten plainly undermined the effectiveness of response to command when he announced that his decisions will be based on his personal Christian beliefs, rather than objective merit. He further stated that at least two core Air Force values are synonymous with the teachings of Christ, thus implying that non-Christians cannot adequately exercise those values. This declaration was then widely published in an official Air Force internet publication, creating the distinct impression that the Air Force supports a practice of preferential treatment toward Christian airmen.
Please note that Lt. Col. Kersten’s public endorsement of Christianity violates both the Constitution and Air Force Instruction 1-1 regardless of whether he has any intent to actually favor Christians over non-Christians while serving in his leadership position. Additionally, the consequences of this endorsement do not involve hypothetical service members who might be offended by Lt. Col. Kersten’s words – the number of complaints MRFF has received clearly demonstrates that many service members and civilians under your direct command are genuinely concerned about potential ramifications to their careers as a result of their own religious beliefs or non-belief.
This grievous matter is a serious situation that warrants serious action. Regrettably, your boilerplate response leaves us wondering whether you will take any action at all. When you say, “The Air Force places the highest value on the rights of its personnel in matters of religion and facilitiates [sic] the free exercise of religion by its members,” do you mean that you will take appropriate action to ensure that non-Christians do not need to worry that they will be treated with disfavor? Or do you mean that you will do nothing due to a misguided belief that Lt. Col. Kersten’s unconstitutional endorsement will have no impact on the religious freedom of those under his command, as well as Turkish military personnel and civilians, despite all evidence to the contrary?
In our previous letter, we set forth MRFF’s demand that you:
(1) Expeditiously and publicly rebuke Lt. Col. Kersten’s official statement – as contrasted with his private Christian faith belief, which is not MRFF’s concern – (2) appropriately and visibly punish Lt. Col. Kersten for his unconstitutional and UCMJ-violating behavior; (3) apologize to your airmen and our Turkish allies, and; (4) reaffirm an inclusive 39th Air Base Wing command climate in which ALL USAF airmen/civilians and Turkish military/civilian members, regardless of their respective religion, race, gender, sexual preference, national origin, or political leanings are treated with equal and mutual respect and dignity.
If you will not take appropriate action, we must take appropriate action on behalf of our clients. Therefore, we must insist, sir, on a real response from you that states unambiguously whether you will take any action concerning our demand.
We look forward to your timely response.
MRFF Legal Affairs Coordinator
Military Religious Freedom Foundation