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Religious liberty groups protest blessing of 'official Bible' of the new Space Force

The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, left, dean of Washington National Cathedral, and the Right Rev. Carl Wright, center, the Episcopal Church’s bishop suffragan for the Armed Forces and Federal Ministries, bless a King James Bible held by Maj. Gen. Steven A. Schaick, chief of chaplains for the U.S. Air Force.

DANIELLE E. THOMAS/WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL

By MICHELLE BOORSTEIN | The Washington Post | Published: January 15, 2020

WASHINGTON — Some religious liberty groups are protesting a blessing ceremony held in the District of Columbia for a Protestant bible to be used by the new U.S. Space Force.

Washington National Cathedral, seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, on Sunday tweeted an image of Dean Randy Hollerith and Rev. Carl Wright, the denomination's bishop for military branches, blessing a King James Bible along with Maj. Gen. Steven Schaick, the Air Force chief of chaplains.

The Space Force, part of the Department of the Air Force, is the newest branch of the U.S. military and is dedicated to space warfare.

"The men and women of our Armed Services are a microcosm of our nation's rich diversity. An official Christian Bible for the #SpaceForce oath violates the constitutional right to exercise religious freedom that these Air Force officers swear to defend," the Anti-Defamation League tweeted Tuesday.

Also Tuesday, the Freedom From Religion Foundation tweeted it was "protesting a ceremony where the newly formed U.S. #SpaceForce designated and blessed its own bible. Selecting one book as the official 'holy book' of a governmental branch is improper and an egregious violation of the Establishment Clause. "

A message left with the Washington National Cathedral, a dramatic District tourist destination that has hosted multiple nationally symbolic events including presidential funerals, wasn't immediately returned Wednesday afternoon. Nor was one left with the national office of the Episcopal Church for Wright.

A spokeswoman for the Air Force said Wednesday that there is no official sacred text for any branch of the U.S. military. High-ranking leaders often use a bible or other sacred text for their swearing-in ceremonies, said Ann Stefanek, but members of the military taking oath in the typical promotion ceremony simply raise their right hand with no text.

She said the bible that was blessed in the Sunday ceremony was used Tuesday at the White House swearing in of Gen. John Raymond, who leads the new Space Force.

Stefanek said the Air Force's first chief of staff, Gen. Carl Spaatz, used a bible for his 1947 swearing in ceremony. He signed that bible, and kept it in the chief of staff's office. Every chief of staff since, she said — whether Christian, whether they used it in a swearing in — has signed the bible. Raymond wanted to start a similar tradition in the new Space Force.

"He signed it, and that will be an opportunity for any future chief of space operations," she said. "It's an option. It's a personal choice."

During Sunday's three-minute blessing ceremony, Wright said: "May this Bible guard and guide all those who purpose that the final frontier be a place where God will triumph over evil, where love will triumph over hate, and where life will triumph over death."

According to NPR, Hollerith's prayer included a plea to "Accept this Bible which we dedicate here today for the United States Space Force ... that all may so diligently search your holy word and find in it the wisdom that leads to peace and salvation, through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen."

NPR also quoted Wright praying for President Donald Trump, who pressed for the creation of the new agency.

"Almighty God, who set the planets in their courses and the stars in space," the Rev. Carl Wright implored, "look with favor, we pray you, upon the commander in chief, the 45th president of this great nation, who looked to the heavens and dared to dream of a safer future for all mankind."

In a statement Monday, the group Military Religious Freedom Foundation issued a statement saying it was sending a formal complaint to the Defense Department.

The Foundation "condemns, in as full-throated a manner as is humanly possible, the shocking and repulsive display of only the most vile, exclusivist, fundamentalist Christian supremacy," MRRF President Mikey Weinstein wrote in the statement.

The National Archives Wednesday said a cursory review turned up no instances of any official bible for any federal agency.

Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center, said he'd never heard of a bible blessing and surmised that the Sunday event was primarily political posturing by the Trump administration in an era when the public role of religion — and Christianity in particular — is being debated. Haynes called the event "the wrong message."

"This is the same kind of dance we've always been doing in our history," Haynes said. "And even more recently, as we've become more aware that there is diversity in the United States, the semi-established Protestant order has fallen apart. And as we become more aware, these vestiges of a need to have a national public religion strike people more and more the wrong way."

Haynes also challenged the cathedral.

"It isn't the 'national' cathedral. They want it both ways," he said. "They want to be the Episcopal Church and independent, and they also want to be seen as the place you come for the great state funerals, and state this or that."

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