The Pentagon has admitted that information used in an Army briefing that labeled the American Family Association (AFA) as a domestic hate group was not acquired from official sources and does not reflect Army doctrine.
Meanwhile, the president of the well-respected Christian ministry says his organization may file a defamation lawsuit against the military.
“We are probably going to be taking legal action,” said Tim Wildmon, president of one of the nation’s most prominent Christian ministries. “The Army has smeared us. They’ve defamed the American Family Association.”
The AFA was listed alongside domestic hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis, the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam during a briefing last week at Camp Shelby in Mississippi.
A soldier who attended the briefing recently sent me a photograph of a slideshow presentation that listed AFA as a domestic hate group because of their support of traditional family values and their opposition to homosexuality.
George Wright, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, tells me the slide was not produced by the Army and it does not reflect their policy or doctrine.
“It was produced by a soldier conducting a briefing which included info acquired from an Internet search,” Wright said. “Info was not pulled from official Army sources, nor was it approved by senior Army leaders, senior equal opportunity counselors or judge-advocate personnel.”
Wright said the briefing has been updated and any references to American Family Association have been removed.
“The soldier, after being challenged on the information, recognized that the information was incorrect,” he said. “Soldiers who attended the briefing will be notified that the information regarding AFA was incorrect.”
Wildmon said he doesn’t believe the Army’s excuse.
“We’re hearing from too many people across the country who’ve witnessed these training sessions,” he said. “We know this is going on in the Army and the Air Force.”
Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for Liberty Institute, is representing the AFA. He said it’s a case of “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
“The Army is going to have to fess up,” he said. “For them to keep saying there are just a bunch of rogue instructors out there is either evidence they have a massive disciplinary problem or they are full of baloney.”
It’s not the first time the Army has accused conservative Christian groups of being domestic hate groups.
Earlier this year, I exposed Army briefings that classified evangelical Christians and Catholics as examples of religious extremism.
“Here you have a Christian ministry trying to do good work and you have the Department of Defense going around smearing your name and trying to turn people against you – spreading false statements about you,” Sasser told me. “It’s just awful what’s going on.”
The soldier who contacted me said he was “completely taken back by this blatant attack not only on the AFA but Christians and our beliefs.”
During the briefing soldiers were reportedly told that they could face punishment for participating in organizations that are considered hate groups.
The soldier said he became alarmed because he is a financial contributor to the AFA ministry.
“I donate to AFA as often as I can,” he said. “Am I going to be punished? I listen to American Family Radio all day. If they hear it on my radio, will I be faced with a Uniformed Code of Military Justice charge?”
It turned out his fears of retribution and reprisals were not unfounded. I received word that the military launched an investigation after my column was published. Officers are in the process of trying to identify the soldier who spoke to me.
“There’s one thing I can guarantee,” Sasser said. “If you speak out about this administration’s push against religious liberty and against people of faith, you will suffer retaliation.”
Wildmon said they’ve tried to reach out to the military – but so far their telephone calls have been ignored.
“We’ve had no chance to defend ourselves or get an explanation from the military on how they came up with the criteria,” he said.
The AFA suspects the military is using material supplied by the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center – an organization with a dubious past.
“For a taxpayer-funded organization like the military to use a politically-motivated group’s hate group list is problematic,” Wildmon said. “One way or another, we’re going to get this changed.”
And he strongly rejects accusations that AFA is a hate group.
“We are a mainstream, evangelical, pro-family group,” he said. “We don’t hate anybody. We have strong feelings on moral values. We oppose the gay and lesbian social and political agenda. We always have. We always will, but that doesn’t mean we hate anyone.”
Sasser said he hopes the investigation answers a pressing question.
“Is this a widespread policy to smear groups like the American Family Association or does the Army have a massive discipline problem with a bunch of rogue commanders doing what they want?” he asked.
Would anybody at the Pentagon care to answer that question?
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary, heard on hundreds of radio stations. His latest book is "God Less America: Real Stories From the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values." Follow Todd on Twitter@ToddStarnes and find him on Facebook.