The Air Force Academy has once again found itself in the spotlight over attempts to prevent its cadets from expressing their religious faith. The Conservative News Service reported that officials at the Academy removed a Bible verse that had been placed on a residence whiteboard by a cadet after the atheist group Military Religious Freedom Foundation claimed that other cadets had complained that they were offended by the scripture.
While the whiteboard had been designated by the academy for both personal and official use, Air Force Academy officials bowed to pressure from the atheist organization's founder, Mickey Weinstein, who appointed himself spokesman for a supposed group of 29 cadets whom Weinstein claimed were offended by the presence of Galatians 2:20 on the whiteboard.
The scripture, placed there by an unnamed cadet, read: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
Weinstein insisted to Fox News that had the Christian cadet displayed the scripture in his room, “not a problem. It's not about the belief. It's about the time, the place, and the manner.”
Making a case for his intrusion into the academy's business, Weinstein claimed to Fox's Todd Starnes that the verse turned the otherwise orderly academy into a hostile environment. “It clearly elevated one religious faith over all others at an already virulently hyper-fundamentalist Christian institution,” said Weinstein. “It massively poured fundamentalist Christian gasoline on an already raging out-of-control conflagration of fundamentalist Christian tyranny, exceptionalism, and supremacy at USAFA.”
Weinstein has targeted the Air Force Academy in the past over issues of religious expression by service members. Last October he complained about the presence of the phrase “so help me God” in the honor oath taken by all incoming freshmen cadets at the Academy. The next month the Academy's superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, revealed to enraged congressmen that she had indeed caved in to the pressure from atheist complainers and dropped the phrase.
In the latest campaign by Weinstein's group, an academy spokesperson conceded that the Air Force Academy had again surrendered to atheist demands, and had erased the verse from the whiteboard. “The whiteboards are for both official and personal use, but when a concern was raised we addressed it and the comment was taken down, Lt. Col. Brus Vidal said in a written statement.
While Weinstein exulted in his group's success, he was upset that the academy had not disciplined the cadet who posted the scripture. Vidal said that the academy saw no misconduct in the cadet's actions, and that “the division between your personal room and the hallway is a gray area.”
The intolerant Weinstein responded to Fox News that “it's not a gray area — this is absolute misconduct. Not only should the cadet be punished, but his/her responsible USAFA cadet and officer chain of command who ignored this blatant and egregious violation of Air Force regulation 1-1 and the United States Constitution [should also be punished].”
There may be more than just one cadet who will be the focus of Weinstein's retribution, however. Fox's Todd Starnes noted that the erasing of the scripture from the whiteboard “led to a small uprising among cadets. At least a dozen posted Bible verses on their personal whiteboards and some even went so far as to post passages from the Koran. Those verses were not removed, presumably because the cadets were not in leadership positions.”
Starnes asked Academy officials if they were planning to order Muslim cadet leaders to remove the Koran passages — a query the Academy did not answer.
A conservative group calling itself the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition, composed of a number of pro-family and religious groups, has stepped forward to challenge the Air Force Academy on its policy of clamping down on First Amendment freedoms.
Gary McCaleb a coalition member as well as a vice president with the conservative legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, said that “suppressing religion is wrong whether it is done behind an Iron Curtain or in a dorm hallway. Certainly such raw anti-religious discrimination has no place in America's Air Force.”
Matthew Staver, director of the Liberty Counsel, said that “this latest incident at the United States Air Force Academy reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of religious freedom. Not only is the notion that cadets have to abandon or hide their faith as a requisite of military service not supported by law, it is actually discriminatory to brave men and women of faith who desire to serve their country.”
And Richard Thompson of the Thomas More Law Center noted that “from the Revolutionary War to the present day, military leaders have understood that in times of danger and death, no physical courage can sustain the soldier other than Divine help. This understanding prompted Article 6 of the military Code of Conduct, which emphasizes a soldier's personal responsibilities for his actions and trust in God.”
Thompson argued that “the actions of the Air Force to restrict this cadet's free speech and the free exercise of religion because it offends some is not only unconstitutional, but conflicts with the military's own understanding of the importance of religion to our military men and women placed in harm's way.”
The 24 organizations that comprise the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition announced that they “stand ready to offer assistance to any Air Force Academy cadet who faces repercussions for writing a Bible verse on a hallway whiteboard that has been designated by the Academy for both official and personal use.”
Photo of U.S. Air Force Academy cadets in formation with Cadet Chapel in background: AP Images