The SUNY New Paltz Secular Student Alliance (SSA) chapter sponsored a lecture by Military Religious Freedom Foundation founder Mikey Weinstein regarding the separation of church and state in the military on Friday, Oct. 12 in Lecture Center (LC) 100.
Weinstein, a West Point graduate, said he was harassed, beaten and intimidated for his Jewish faith during his time in the military. After serving as legal counsel to the Reagan Administration and first General Counsel to former presidential candidate Ross Perot, Weinstein said he left to directly combat “fanatical religiosity with access to weapons of mass destruction,” and started the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
Since then, the foundation has garnered attention from news and media outlets and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times.
At the lecture, Weinstein spoke out against religious corruption in the military, particularly at West Point, including an incident where he said West Point superior officers forced “mass Christian prayer” on students at a suicide prevention lecture.
New Paltz SSA Co-founder and Co-president Leo Vogel said the club chose Weinstein as a speaker to assist the West Point SSA after he was not formally invited to speak at the academy.
“The overall goal of the Secular Student Alliance of New Paltz is to provide a safe space for non-theistic students on campus and contribute to the campus and town of New Paltz through community service,” Vogel said. “We welcome students of all identities, theist and non-theist, who fully support the separation of church and state.”
As the academy denied nearly all requests made by the West Point academy chapter of SSA, member Blake Page said the group decided to “informally” meet with Weinstein to avoid “procedural difficulties.”
“Before official recognition, we’ve had to meet privately and informally and have had no entitlement to advertisement across campus,” Page said.
Page said there have been other problems regarding religious freedom at the academy, mentioning an incident in which a student was encouraged by his superiors to attend a bible study with the understanding that it could affect his military grade, which is based on performance in cadet duties.
“Being ‘encouraged’ to do something by your chain of command in the military is much different than being encouraged to do something in the civilian world,” Page said.
To help the student, Page said he notified the student’s company’s executive officer of the issue and it was quickly resolved.
Page, who attended the event in New Paltz, said after the academy did not approve the group’s request for a “trip section” to leave their posts and therefore only two of the 16 students who signed up were able to attend.
*Editor’s Note: Blake Page wished to acknowledge he is not speaking in any official capacity as a representative of the Army, West Point, or the SSA.