A tale of three Christmases at NAS Bahrain, Schofield Barracks, and Fort Belvoir

Military Personnel marching in Waianae Coast Rotary Christmas Parade

Here at MAAF, we receive lots of complaints around the holidays. Several have come in the last few weeks, and I’d like to highlight three:

  • Ft Belvoir is holding concerts, a tree lighting, and other activities to officially observe a full month of Christian Advent.
  • At Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, sixty soldiers were detailed to march in and support a community Christmas parade.
  • At Naval Support Activity Bahrain in the Middle-Eastern nation of Bahrain, the garrison command scheduled a live nativity with real people and animals as part of its official Christmas festivities.

MAAF received complaints about each of these issues. One is unresolved. One is was resolved after investigation. One seemed to be an appropriate celebration with no misuse of authority.

The way the right-wing media tells it, we secularists literally raise Hell every time we hear the word Christmas. Not so. Christmas is a federal holiday because of its broad appeal and secular celebration of American values like family and charity. Many non-Christians enjoy Christmas carols, presents, decorations, and the general holiday cheer. Some even enjoy religious Christmas celebrations so long as they are outside the context of official government endorsement and mandatory military events. Participating in caroling, listening to a choral presentation at a church, or participating in a Christmas charity can be enjoyable and empowering for all as long as they don’t involve government coercion or funding. As a general guideline, MAAF sees a Christmas tree, presents, some songs, and even Santa Claus as trappings of secular Christmas. Angels, nativity scenes, crosses, prayers, and carols focused explicitly on Christianity (e.g., Silent Night) cross the line into a religious devotion rather than a neutral, secular celebration. These examples may help military leaders better understand how to maintain neutrality toward religion while still providing for both secular and religious holiday celebrations.

Note: There are many details left out of these examples, but the information provided is intended to be representative of the incidents without unnecessary discussion.

NSA Bahrain: MAAF received a flyer advertising a “Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony”. The flyer gave top billing to the live nativity scene planned. This event was promoted and endorsed by the command as a featured event for the year in the main courtyard on the installation. NSA Bahrain held a Gospel concert in the same location and a religious Christmas celebration last year, as previously reported by MAAF. MAAF sent a letter to the Inspector General responsible for Navy installations that included the following excerpt:

This (referring to the live nativity) is not just support for but promotion of Christianity as the official religion of the base. This violates the Constitution and the mandates of the command to support all belief while privileging none. The event is billed as a ‘holiday’ event but it is nothing but a Christian activity, and it is dishonest for the command to attempt to advertise the event as a ‘holiday’ activity when it is so clearly and exclusively biased toward Christianity. Also of concern is the likelihood that the predominantly Muslim local population will see the US military as a Christian force rather than as a secular military supporting US but not necessarily Christian values in their Muslim country. This event threatens US security and violates the Constitution as well as command policy.

The Inspector General investigated the issue and quickly responded with the following, “Upon further review, the CRP (Command Religious Program) will be removing the Living Nativity Program from the general base secular holiday festivities and co-locating it more appropriately with some of our other private religious and faith-based observances at the chapel at a separate time.” This is an outcome that provides an affirming and enjoyable private Christian celebration for those interested as well as a religiously-neutral and enjoyable secular “holiday” celebration for other installation personnel.

These issues need to be resolved before coming to the attention of external organizations like MAAF, but swift response to resolve the issue amicably for all is a step in the right direction.

Schofield Barracks, Hawaii: Each year, the Waianae Coast Rotary Club hosts a Christmas parade for the local community near Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. The leaders at Schofield Barracks, like any good military leaders, reach out to the local community of which they are a part. One unit sent out an order to provide 60 personnel, a military vehicle, and a band from Schofield Barracks to add to what would be 1000 marchers and 30 vehicles. It sounds like good public relations and good advertising, but it is a Christmas parade. One MAAF member in the chain of command pushed back on the tasking, saying that leadership was not there to force soldiers into religious activities and asked MAAF to look into the issue.

The Rotary Club itself founds itself on values such as fairness, honesty, and service with no sectarian bias. The parade was billed as “Peace through Service” and the 2011 parade was “Embracing Wainae’s Diversity“. Photos from the event show church floats participating with other private organizations but no apparent sectarian bias. The military was also representing itself and not involved in support of any private organization or any sectarian activity. From the review, the “Christmas” in this case seemed to be an entirely secular with religious components but no bias. The soldier understood the explanation and went forward with the tasking with no issues.

This is an instance (one of many) where intervention by a nontheist group resolved rather than created a complaint about a Christmas celebration.

Fort Belvoir, Virginia: This instance is the most recent and is still under review. In two articles, the Belvoir Eagle reported on the official Garrison Christmas concert and the Tree Lighting ceremony. The garrison chaplain told the Eagle that the concert kicked of the “garrison’s observance of Advent, a four-week period leading up to the birth of Christ.” At this point, there is a command sponsorship of the religious aspects of Christmas, but the concert itself seems to be separate as a Christian chaplain program.

However, the Tree Lighting ceremony is more than its name would imply. This happened December 7th and reportedly, the chaplain started with a prayer, then lit the tree. After that, kids were ushered into the chapel to meet Mr and Mrs Santa Claus. The addition of the prayer (which may be a sectarian Christian prayer according to Army policy but not Constitutional precedent) and the parading of children through the chapel (even the foyer) creates a command endorsement of religion. It is unclear whether the children were led through the full chapel or treated to religious symbols to drive home a Christian message.

But wait, there’s more. The chaplain comments to the media betray a disturbingly evangelical bias toward these events. In the two articles, Chaplain Major Kristi Pappas is quoted as saying, “Christ not only gave us a fish, but taught us to fish.” Are these children and soldiers attending the ceremony being presented as “fish” for evangelical fishing?

Pappas also took a decidedly political stance, saying “I think we’ve forgotten what our founding fathers gave us and where they were influenced,” said Pappas. “They understood our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness was a gift from our creator.” This Christian-nation rhetoric puts atheists and humanists who do not recognize a creator in the role of second-class citizen or outright traitor. How can all soldiers feel like part of the team when they are so negatively singled out for their beliefs?

When an official “holiday tree lighting” is wrapped in prayer, housed in the chapel, and used as a platform for evangelical Christianity, then the government has promoted Christianity. Military leaders have an obligation to step in to prevent or hand down retraining and reprimands to prevent future issues. This is an especially urgent issue as post chaplains are even invited to teach values to children in local schools.

Fort Belvoir should investigate the details of this event. At the least, we should see Fort Belvoir leaders issuing a retraction of the official endorsement of “spiritual celebration of Christmas” and the “garrison’s observance of Advent.” Military leaders have no business privileging Christianity with a special month-long celebration. Post command should officially declare its neutrality toward religion, place sectarian events into private chaplain programs targeted only to appropriate religious communities, and ensure that chaplain activities are not themselves exclusively biased toward one belief or type of belief.

Conclusion: Not really a conclusion, but a conclusion to this article. The article leads with a great story at NSA Bahrain where swift and appropriate action (after complaint) led to a great Christmas nativity scene available to Christians without command sponsorship or bias, and a great secular Christmas celebration for the general population on the installation. The second was a complaint that we at MAAF were able to resolve without any change to the event. It was an education opportunity for one of our members that “Christmas” doesn’t necessarily mean a religious event, and is representative of many of the issues brought to our attention. The Fort Belvoir issue came out with little time to react, but the hope is that Fort Belvoir officials will look more closely and ensure that chaplains do not marginalize non-Christians, target them for proselytizing, or entangle the command in sectarian activities.

Update 12/11: Todd Starnes at Fox News reports the Live Nativity was cancelled altogether rather than held with private activities. MAAF has not yet been able to confirm the report independently. I am quote in the article saying, “Torpy said he is pleased with how the Navy handled the matter.” That comment is true but was also given with the understanding that a private Live Nativity was held elsewhere. If the scene had to be cancelled, that is unfortunate but it is also preferable to the government-sponsored proselytism the Live Nativity would have added to an otherwise positive celebration. Someone may have determined that the controversy created by cancelling the Live Nativity would be preferable to the win-win situation of a secular Christmas from the command and a Christian celebration separately and available to anyone interested.

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