Military leaders struggle with diversity in holiday displays
Ft Campbell post entrance welcomes religious
As the “holiday” season continues, post officials are extending special recognition to religious service members, specifically Jews and Christians. A nativity scene and menorah combo have been erected at both Travis AFB in California and Ft Campbell, Kentucky. This privileging of religion has led to legal challenges and a groundswell of local atheists and humanists seeking recognition of their beliefs equal to that provided Jews and Christians. These local efforts are being coordinated by American Atheists and military director Justin Griffith.
Holiday displays are problematic as they often imply a special privilege for certain religious beliefs. If they are religious, then they should be restricted to the area of the chapel. If they are in the area of the chapel, they must be posted in such a way as to associate them with general chaplain services without bias.
Travis AFB Nativity scene
This is difficult as holy-days don’t occur for all religions at the same time. When a the only display posted all year is a Nativity scene beside a a Hanukkah menorah in December, it is difficult to see any government neutrality toward religion. If a Muslim display were posted during the holy month or Ramadan, or a colorful display were posted for Hindu Holi or Diwali then one might lend credence to the idea that the chaplaincy is truly neutral toward belief, providing opportunity for all. Military leaders and the chaplaincy, by default, should have no prominent religious displays, but if they do see a need, more care must be made, on a DoD-wide scale, to provide for a truly neutral policy.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports the the Travis Air Force Base display included “images of Santa Claus, Christmas trees and airplanes,” and that similar displays have appeared for 17 years. Base leaders agreed to remove the religious displays to the area of the post chapel to ensure no appearance of command endorsement of religion. They also agreed to post a display from the local military atheist group, Travis MASH.
Nighttime scene of the atheist sign "Have a Safe Holiday Season" featuring the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
At Ft Campbell, military personnel are eager to participate in displays as well, but the display is currently located under the post welcome sign – indicating that the entire post is a Judeo-Christian area. And local personnel indicate that the Menorah was posted on Dec 20th, coinciding with the start of Hanukkah. This placement differs from the Travis AFB situation in that the display includes only religious symbols and is sitting under the post welcome sign. American Atheists reports a contentious call to the on-duty chaplain, where the chaplain asked, “You guys want a blank sign in my office?” This is an unfortunate attitude some chaplains hold that 1) atheists believe in nothing and 2) that we aren’t worthy of respect. I hope that the Ft Campbell head chaplain and post leaders will provide a more professional response as they have time to review the situation.
MAAF and American Atheists are inviting comment from those at installations with similar promotions of religion. The intent of this activity is to ensure installation commanders offer equal opportunity to all service members regardless of religion or belief. In addition, local personnel at Beale Air Force Base, Luke Air Force Base, and others are gathering to start local groups. Those interested should contact MAAF to join other global affiliates of the MAAF Network. MAAF encourages installation leaders and chaplains to turn this into a positive experience. By recognizing the diversity of leadership on post and inviting atheists and humanists to be equal members in the community, the US military will be stronger.