The U.S. Air Force Academy has pulled out of a Christian-sponsored children's toy drive after commanders were accused of religious intolerance.
Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate who runs the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said the academy's participation in Operation Christmas Child is inappropriate because of its evangelical Christian roots.
Operation Christmas Child is sponsored by Samaritan's Purse, headed by Franklin Graham -- the son of evangelist Billy Graham. It packs toys and other items into shoe boxes and sends them to needy children around the world, along with a Christian message in each gift.
“This is arrogance beyond measure,” Weinstein told the Colorado Springs Gazette.
Weinstein said he took issue with an announcement about the drive made to cadets in the dining hall, followed up with an email appealing for donations.
"PLEASE, PLEASE CONSIDER SPENDING SOME OF YOUR VALUABLE TIME AND MONEY TO LOVE ON A KID AROUND THE WORLD!!," the email said. It was sent by a cadet after approval from a cadet leader, the newspaper reported.
According to Fox News, Weinstein was first alerted to the drive this week when he received a complaint from a cadet who was offended.
“The cadet sent an e-mail saying, ‘This just shows how our military is supporting one religion – which is Christianity,’” Weinstein said.
The academy initially stood by the decision to participate in the program, but reversed course Thursday. A new email to cadets retracted the earlier appeal for donations.
“We agree that it was inappropriate,” academy spokesman Lt. Col John Bryan told the Gazette. Instead, the academy's chaplains -- who are permitted to take part in and support religious projects -- have taken over the drive.
Operation Christmas Child makes no attempt to hide its religious affiliation, stating on its website, "The mission of Operation Christmas Child is to demonstrate God's love in a tangible way to needy children around the world, and together with the local church worldwide, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ."
The academy never denied the religious aspect of the charity, but said at first there was nothing wrong with the school’s participation. The cadets would donate toys and other items, but wouldn’t have anything to do with the religious message included with the gifts when they're delivered, academy spokesman John Van Winkle originally said.
“It doesn’t promote a particular faith, it promotes a charity event,” he said.
Weinstein said he wouldn't have a problem with the academy participating in a secular toy drive, or the new plan to have academy chaplains promote the religious charity. It was cadet leaders appearing to back Christian evangelism that crossed the line, he said.
“We got this one fixed,” he said.
Weinstein said he's not trying to take away toys from children in need.
“We are not trying to take shoe boxes of toys and candy away from kids,” he told Fox. “But this is clearly an egregious Constitutional mistake.”
In an academy statement issued later in the day on Nov. 4, Brig. Gen. Richard Clark, commandant of cadets, reiterated that the chaplains will indeed be handling the matter, stating that the Chaplain Corps is responsible for advertising faith-based programs and events.
“This was an oversight by me that has been addressed and forwarded through the proper channels,” Clark said. “The cadets’ had nothing but good intentions, but this was something that should have started with the Chaplains, not the Cadet Wing. That doesn’t mean the cadets can’t volunteer for the Christmas toy drive, they can participate through the Cadet Chaplain Corps."