Weinstein moves beyond AFA in battle for religious freedom

June 19, 2010
photo - Mikey Weinstein attended graduation this year with his family to watch the graduation of a friend. Graduation for the Air Force Academy was held at Falcom Stadium on Wednesday, May 26, 2010. There were 1001 cadets who are graduatng.  (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) Photo by THE GAZETTE/JERILEE BENNETT
Mikey Weinstein attended graduation this year with his family to watch the graduation of a friend. Graduation for the Air Force Academy was held at Falcom Stadium on Wednesday, May 26, 2010. There were 1001 cadets who are graduatng. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) Photo by THE GAZETTE/JERILEE BENNETT 

Few things have the power to wound Mikey Weinstein as deeply as the Air Force Academy.

The 1977 honors graduate sometimes compares the academy to a father-figure. When it disappoints him, he takes it personally — and lashes out.

Yet during a recent visit to Colorado Springs, the religious watchdog spoke happily of a relationship on the mend.

“The Air Force Academy,” he said with satisfaction, “is the least of my concerns right now. It’s not perfect, but the patient is in Post-Op.”

Weinstein, 55, a former Air Force prosecutor who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., isn’t prone to doling out praise — especially when it comes to any whiff of the Religious Right’s influence on the military.

He founded the nonprofit Military Religious Freedom Foundation in 2006 after coming to the defense of Air Force Academy cadets who complained of a hostile environment for anyone who wasn’t Christian.

The slug-match attracted national attention and resulted in stronger protections for cadets who want their religious lives separate from their careers. The battle also formed a template for the foundation’s future clashes.

The broad outlines of Weinstein’s approach: Condemn in the strongest language possible. Publicly embarrass. Sue if necessary. Each new step raises the pressure on his publicity-averse targets.

Weinstein, who is Jewish, said he enjoys an amicable relationship with academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, an evangelical Christian, despite five years of bad blood with Gould’s predecessors.

Gould, he has said, “gets it,” and is committed to serving his own faith even as he ensures the academy welcomes differing traditions. That’s enough to please Weinstein, who says he supports religious practice as long as it doesn’t interfere with military duties or adversely affect abstainers.

Responsible Christians, he said, recognize “time, manner and place” restrictions on proselytizing.  

Today, Weinstein saves the hellfire-and-brimstone rhetoric for new targets, excoriating as “clueless” and “shocking” the people he accuses of placing their religious beliefs ahead of the Constitution.

“Make no mistake: They are a national security threat,” he said.

In January, he picked a successful fight with the Marine Corps, which agreed to alter gun scopes that were inscribed with biblical citations.

Weinstein said the coded reference offended his “clients” — the people who seek help from his foundation, often anonymously — and had the potential to inflame Muslim extremists who seek to portray Americans as crusaders in the war against Islam.

In April, the Army withdrew an invitation to pastor Franklin Graham for a National Day of Prayer event after Weinstein’s group and other critics objected to disparaging comments he made about Islam.

Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, had criticized Islam as a “very evil and wicked religion” in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Weinstein’s latest public battle involves the religious content on Fort Carson’s emblem for the Evans Army Community Hospital. The emblem bears a spiked cross used by Crusaders and a motto translating to “For God and Humanity.”

Weinstein, who said the Army is ignoring his concerns, intends to sue in Federal Court to have the emblem changed.

Such public battles have made Weinstein a target, too.

He regularly receives death threats, and accounts of his exploits are widely circulated among conservative and religious-themed websites in which he is dismissed as anti-Christian, a charge he vigorously disputes.

Moderate critics have blamed him for polarizing sensitive conflicts and bullying military leaders who mean well but don’t move quickly enough to please him.

Weinstein, who appears unfazed by criticism, said he doesn’t feel inclined to soften his approach.

“You can’t really whisper truth to power,” he said.

As Weinstein’s profile grows on the national stage, it’s unlikely that his ties to Colorado Springs will fade.

His sons, Curtis, 26, and Casey, 27, and his daughter-in-law Amanda, 28, are fellow Air Force Academy graduates. His daughter Amber, 22, is in a “serious, committed relationship” with a 2010 graduate, Air Force 2nd Lt. Mack Delgado, of Miami, Fla.

Weinstein’s wife, Bonnie, was by his side during a May visit to Colorado Springs, where they attended Delgado’s graduation. She was the picture of calm as her husband revisited past battles and spoke of clashes to come.

The couple met when Mikey Weinstein was a freshman at the academy. She was a sounding board for his arguments when he served as an Air Force JAG officer, and she helps shape Weinstein’s arguments today.

“When he goes a little overboard, we talk about it,” she said. “But people don’t realize that going overboard is what’s getting the attention.”

“He tried quiet and nice,” she adds. “Quiet and nice doesn’t work.”

Call the writer at 636-0366.

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