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Air Force squadron commander under fire for 'Jesus' comments

Posted October 16

A military activist group is demanding an Air Force squadron commander be punished for comments he made about his Christian faith in a recent interview.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Kersten mentioned Jesus and his Christian worldview last month while speaking with the public affairs office at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, where he serves.

It is those comments — a direct response to a question he was asked about his leadership — that are at the center of the controversy, with Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, accusing him of acting in an "unconstitutional" manner.

In a Q&A published Sept. 15, 2016, Kersten was asked which leader from his career has most influenced him — and his leadership.

"There’s no ONE in particular. As a Christian, my example is to be like Christ," Kersten responded. "He is my guide and affects all of my decisions. He teaches to do all things as unto the Lord and I believe this is synonymous with integrity first and excellence in all we do."

In an Oct. 6 letter addressed to Col. John C. Walker, commander of the 39th Air Base Wing at Incirlik Air Base, Weinstein pushed back against this response, saying more than 100 personnel on the base disagreed with Kersten's interview response and reached out to him for representation.

"While MRFF strongly supports and would effusively defend Lt. Col. Kersten’s personal right to believe as he chooses, we’re also confident that you, as the 39th Air Base Wing Commander, see the improper, coercive nature of these very public comments as to the obvious unconstitutional time, place, and manner of their unfortunate expression," Weinstein wrote. "Which is exactly what prompted our new Incirlik clients to contact us."

The activist believes Kersten violated Air Force Instruction 1-1, a document that details the religious rights of Air Force members.

Air Force Instruction 1-1 says that military members should practice their beliefs while respecting others' views that might differ from their own.

It also proclaims that every member of the Air Force is entitled to "individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs," Military.com reported.

But those beliefs must not negatively impact "military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety, or mission accomplishment."

Weinstein felt Kersten violated these principles, likening his comments to proselytization, while also questioning the possible ramifications of his remarks.

"ALL of Lt. Col. Kersten’s decisions SHOULD be based upon his oath of office and allegiance to the United States Constitution to which he has sworn to protect and defend," Weinstein wrote. "By unequivocally stating to the world that ALL of his decisions are based upon his Christian faith, he has broadcast to his otherwise helpless subordinates, and the multitudes of other military and civilian members which the Air Force Squadron he now commands directly and indirectly serves, that he will, in a professional setting, place decision-making primacy on his personal version of his Christian religious faith over his official military duty."

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is asking that Walker publicly rebuke Kersten, punish him and apologize to staff at the base, according to the letter.

So far, the article is still online, and there's no indication of what, if anything, the base will do in response to Weinstein's letter.

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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