Air Force drops evangelical marriage video from mandatory wellness course
WASHINGTON — Spurred by protests, commanders at Little Rock Air Force Base have dumped a video marriage-enhancement course, saying the program by an Evangelical Christian group focused only on heterosexual marriage at a time when the military is moving to accept same-sex marriage as well.
The video series, “The Art of Marriage,” was scheduled for Feb. 7 at the Arkansas base’s annual Wingman Day. The Air Force Wingman Program and others similar to it, including the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program, are mandatory and designed to promote psychological and physical wellness and teach troops how to look for signs of suicide risk and other problems.
But the spiritual aspect of those wellness programs — which the services say is nondenominational — has drawn complaints from servicemembers who charge it allows commanders to promote specific religious viewpoints, particularly those of Evangelicals and conservative Christians.
The change was prompted by complaints from at least one airman to the chain of command, as well as an intervention by Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and a crusader against what he characterizes as undue influence on the military by conservative Christian groups.
Weinstein dismissed the Air Force’s explanation, saying officials were trying to make a “tar baby” of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered troops.
“They’re saying, ‘Look, they made us do it,’” he said. “They really did this because it would have been illegal for them to force people to watch that video.”
A spokeswoman for the Arkansas base said cancellation was not because the program was produced by an Evangelical group, but because its target audience was too narrow.
“We wanted to make sure it was inclusive of all relationships, to include same-sex relationships,” said 2nd Lt. Amanda Porter.
Company officials from FamilyLife, a Christian nonprofit organization headquartered in Little Rock that produced the video, would not comment, saying the decision was the Air Force’s alone. In an emailed statement, the organization added that more than 400,000 people have seen the video program since it began in 2011.
Porter said the base had contracted with FamilyLife to conduct several previous marriage retreats for married and single airmen, and that the videos and materials from those functions were to be used for the program next month. She was unable to provide a dollar amount of the contracts Friday. Commanders haven't decided yet whether the series will be used in future voluntary settings unconnected to Wingman Day, Porter said.
As a replacement, a base chaplain will teach a “faith-based” but nondenominational marriage seminar that covers heterosexual and same-sex relationships, she said. Another nondenominational religious program in the Wingman Day lineup, Prayer 101, will still be offered.
Porter also said that in response to complaints that there were no nonreligious programs offered as part of Wingman Day’s spiritual component, commanders had reclassified several programs, including one on nature appreciation.
Commanders were glad airmen spoke up about their concerns, she said.
Even when there were only Christian options, airmen felt pressure to attend the spiritually focused events and were told attendance would be tracked, said an airman at Little Rock who contacted Weinstein to seek representation.
“There were no alternatives, no others,” the airman said. “Basically it seemed like they were saying if you want to have a healthy marriage, you have to be a Christian of a certain sort.”
Weinstein said 25 aggrieved airmen got in touch with them, almost all of them Christians. He followed up with calls to the base and to officials at the Pentagon to charge that the situation violated troops’ religious freedom as well as Pentagon policies against proselytization.
“It’s great that the Air Force did the right thing and fixed this,” he said. “It’s bad that we had to hold a gun to their head in order to get them to do it.”