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Cruz misfires on tale of censored Air Force chaplain

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- In his speeches attacking the Obama administration, Sen. Ted Cruz has started to include a story about the censorship of a chaplain at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson this past summer.

But the Texas Tea Party favorite has a few key facts wrong.

“In recent months, we saw an Air Force chaplain in Alaska face punishment and repercussions for posting a blog post in which he stated, 'there are no atheists in foxholes,'" Cruz said during his 21-hour speech to the Senate last month against Obamacare.

At the “Values Voter Summit” last week in Washington, D.C., he repeated the chaplain story and blamed the Obama administration, citing it as an example of how the current administration is violating the Bill of Rights.

“This is an administration that has reprimanded an Air Force chaplain in Alaska for writing in a blog post: There are no atheists in foxholes. Now, mind you, he was quoting President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who I might note has some passing familiarity with the military,” Cruz said.

For the senator's purposes, it sounds better to say the chaplain faced punishment and a reprimand, even if he didn't, and it sounds better to blame Obama, even if the top Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson officer made the command decision.

There is no evidence to back up Cruz's claim that Lt. Col. Kenneth Reyes was punished or reprimanded for what he wrote in July about the history of the foxhole phrase during World War II.

“I have not and will not reprimand anyone on anything related to this matter, concluding based on facts and circumstances such action is neither appropriate nor warranted,” JBER commander Col. Brian Duffy said in a statement July 25.

And in what comes pretty close to an admission that he screwed up when he yanked the column by Reyes, the JBER commander made an about-face a few weeks later.

Duffy ordered that the formerly offending essay be returned to the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson website Aug. 8. 

You can read it there now, along with this disclaimer: "Comments regarding specific beliefs, practices, or behaviors are strictly those of the author and do not convey  endorsement by the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, the Army, the Air Force, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or the 673d Air Base Wing."

In his recounting of the Air Force censorship story, Cruz doesn’t mention that the column has been reposted by JBER, as it makes a better story to skip that detail.

In a note after the column was reposted, Duffy said there is a balance of “constitutional protections for an individual's free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs with the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion."

The complaint about Reyes came from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which claimed that Reyes had chosen to "publicly denigrate" people without religion with an “anti-secular diatribe” that amounted to hate speech.

The complaint was ridiculous. Reyes is a chaplain and his essay was a thoughtful and respectful treatment about the meaning of faith, even among those who are not religious. He didn't attack or ridicule people with different beliefs.

“Everyone expresses some form of faith every day, whether it is religious or secular. Some express faith by believing when they get up in the morning they will arrive at work in one piece, thankful they have been given another opportunity to enjoy the majesty of the day; or express relief the doctor's results were negative,” Reyes wrote.

Duffy overreacted by removing the column in July. At the time, the commander said he did so “out of concern for those who may have been offended.” That is the wrong basis on which to censor speech.

After the JBER censorship, conservative activists and writers took up the cause, objecting to the heavy-handed approach by the military.

Those offended by Reyes’ essay had the right to claim that he was wrong, but no right to silence him. The Air Force did the right thing by returning his essay to the JBER website.

The right thing for Cruz, if he keeps talking about the incident, is to correct his errors and omissions.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole