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R. Martin Umbarger, National Guard General, Accused Of Ethics Violation For Endorsing Christian Group

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The head of the Indiana National Guard recorded a fundraising video for an evangelical Christian organization -- an act that violates the constitutional separation of church and state, a watchdog group argues, and that is grounds for dismissal, one of the nation's leading military law experts says.

In the video, Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, adjutant general of the Indiana National Guard, endorses Centurion's Watch, an Indianapolis-based sectarian Christian nonprofit that offers marriage counseling to military families. The video was first noted by freethoughtblogs.com.

Standing before the Centurion's Watch logo and wearing his Army desert camouflage uniform, Umbarger says:

"Centurion's Watch is a wonderful way that you can help. Any donation or resource that you can give this organization -- it's faith-based. It's wanting to keep families together with the stresses and strains of being apart, being in harm's way, risking their lives for this country. I can't think of a better organization that you can support. So if you want to give back, if you want to have some way you can help, I would highly encourage that you support this organization."

Mikey Weinstein, a retired Air Force lawyer and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said in an email to The Huffington Post that Umbarger's appearance in the video "blatantly violated a slew of foundational [Defense Department] ethics and conflict of interest regulations, directives and instructions."

Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale and is president emeritus of the National Institute of Military Justice, agreed and went further.

"The governor should dismiss him," said Fidell, referring to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

In a letter to Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau in Washington, Weinstein accused Umbarger of an "astonishingly brazen, bold and blatant violation" of Pentagon regulations by "incontrovertibly endorsing ... a private sector entity which is clearly a comprehensively sectarian, proselytizing, fundamentalist, evangelical Christian parachurch organization." Writing on behalf of 31 Indiana Army and Air National Guard members whom his group represents, Weinstein called for an investigation and urged McKinley to take punitive action against the commander.

The National Guard Bureau had no immediate comment.

This is not the first time Weinstein, a vocal critic of religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy and elsewhere in the military, has accused high-ranking officers of improperly favoring evangelical Christian groups. In 2007, after complaints from his foundation, the Defense Department's inspector general issued a report that said seven officers, including four generals, had violated ethics rules by shooting a video for Christian Embassy. The nonprofit religious organization, which is affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ, used the video to raise funds.

It is not clear whether Umbarger, who runs his family's animal feed business in civilian life, was familiar with that case when he filmed the Centurion's Watch video. But in comments emailed to HuffPost on Friday, he cited the heavy toll that frequent deployments have taken on the marriages of Reserve soldiers and lauded the free seminars offered by Centurion's Watch. He said attendance was voluntary.

"It is true that Centurion's Watch is a faith based organization," Umbarger wrote. "However, it is my understanding that Army policy does not prohibit public affairs support of events sponsored by organizations with a narrow membership base or interest such as religious organizations, when it is clear that the support primarily benefits the community at large and/or the Army, as opposed to benefiting the sponsoring organization. Army policy even permits closed events to be considered of common interest and mutual benefit to the community and the Army if the invitations are extended to a cross section of a broadly represented community, as was the case with Centurion's Watch's marriage enrichment seminars."

Yet on Monday, soon after HuffPost spoke with Centurion's Watch President Doug Hedrick by phone, Umbarger's public affairs officer, Maj. Shawn Gardner, emailed that "since our initial response" on Friday, "Major General Umbarger immediately tasked our Director of Civil Military Affairs to contact Centurion's Watch and request the video in question be removed. We were advised on Friday evening by [Hedrick] that this action had been completed."

Hedrick did not mention that request or any effort to take down the video in his interview with HuffPost. He declined to comment on whether Umbarger violated ethics rules in touting his group, which has counseled more than 100 military couples since its founding in November 2010. When asked if he was familiar with the inspector general's ruling in the Christian Embassy case or with the relevant Pentagon regulations concerning religious activities, Hedrick said he was not -- even though he has served as an Army Reserve chaplain for 14 years, including a stint in Iraq.

Fidell, the military law expert, was less hesitant. "Fundraising in uniform for a sectarian organization? The Indiana Adjutant General should clearly not be doing this, and he's been caught red-handed thanks to the video," Fidell wrote HuffPost in an email.

"We have been around the track on this kind of thing before, and the message has not sunk in," said Fidell. "It may be that adultery remains a military offense, but it is still not the military's business to reduce the divorce rate ... and it is transparently disingenuous to try to seize on that as a rationale for overstepping the line between Church and State. General officers should know better than to try to be 'cute' when it comes to the Establishment Clause."

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