Forced agnosticism at the Air Force Academy

Religious Liberty | In response to complaints about a Scripture posted on a dorm room door, academy officials say cadet leaders must suppress their faith
by Andrew Branch
Posted 3/14/14, 01:48 pm

New rules issued by the Pentagon in January allegedly protect all service members’ religious expression, but as one U.S. Air Force Academy cadet discovered this week, those protections do not extend to Christian leaders who want to express their faith in public.

The dustup over a cadet who wrote a Scripture verse on the whiteboard on his dorm room door and later removed it—some say by force, others by choice—has become the U.S. military’s latest religious liberty scandal. As the smoke clears and members of the top brass meet with representatives from both Christian and anti-religious groups, both sides stand ready to file suit to protect what they say are constitutionally protected freedoms.

Cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., have a whiteboard on their dorm room doors. They supposedly were free to write whatever they wanted on them until one cadet in a minor leadership role scrawled a verse from the Bible on his: “I have been crucified with Christ therefore I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Someone complained, and the verse disappeared. Mikey Weinstein, head of the anti-evangelical Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which seeks to strictly limit religious expression in the military, quickly took credit for it. Weinstein claims 33 people bypassed the established chain of command in a “toxic,” pro-Christian environment to complain to him about the verse.

But academy officials dispute Weinstein’s claim.

“Nobody told anybody to take any verse down,” academy spokesman Lt. Col. Brus Vidal told me Thursday. The complaint, which he said originally came in-house, went to a cadet council guided by senior officers and similar to an honor court for cheating. “That cadet, after this intellectual discussion, decided … I should probably take this down,” Vidal said.

Weinstein disputed Vidal’s version of events, citing an inside contact whom he said promised to “move swiftly” to address the issue.

While religious expression is supposed to be protected, the Air Force expects leaders to be circumspect about their worldviews, if they involve God in any way, an academy administrator said after news of the incident broke.

“The scripture was below the cadet’s name on a whiteboard and could cause subordinates to doubt the leader’s religious impartiality,” academy superintendent Michelle Johnson told Fox News’ Todd Starnes in a statement, referencing an Air Force regulation. The new Pentagon rule protects all religious expression unless it “could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline.” The Air Force code Johnson cited puts the onus on leaders to avoid even the “apparent” use of their positions to “promote” beliefs that could put unit cohesion at risk.

Extending the already controversial leaders’ policy to Bible verses has left cadets in limbo, said Mike Berry, director of military affairs at the Liberty Institute. Berry’s group is the largest firm in Restore Military Religious Freedom, a coalition of conservative organizations fighting the rise in anti-Christian attitudes in the military. In one instance, a senior officer was forced to remove a Bible he’d kept on his desk for 23 years.

“There’s mass confusion amongst them,” Berry said of the 10 cadets he interviewed in Colorado Springs on Thursday. The practice of writing personal, even religious quotes on dorm room whiteboards is common and important to the cadets, he said. “They don’t know what the policy is, and they’d like to know from the Air Force what the policy is.”

Vidal claims this particular situation falls in a gray area because the “dorm room for those cadet leaders also happens to be their office. There’s a blurred line there.” That’s what the cadet council is for, to address leadership situations that “aren’t always ‘win-win,’” he said.

But that doesn’t explain why writing a Scripture puts a leader’s impartiality into question, Berry said, adding “I would hope that they’re being trained to be able to withstand somebody writing something on a whiteboard that hurts their feelings.”

After the first news stories about the situation broke Tuesday, about a dozen cadets posted quotes from the Bible, the Quran, and even non-religious texts, in protest. Weinstein is calling for the academy to punish everyone who posted verses—or he’s going to sue. “We would not oppose trial by general courts martial at all,” Weinstein told me in an email. “There is NO substitute for visible and meaningful punishment.”

Weinstein claims he doesn’t target Christians, only that his complaints mainly target Christians, who must not “equate religious belief with service” or be “overzealous” in practicing the Great Commission. “It's the Great Commission vs. The Great Constitution,” he told me.

But a Scripture on a dorm room door is not a church-state violation, Berry said. During a late Thursday meeting with academy officials, Berry said they told him the protection for religious expression does not extend to religious speech. Writing a Scripture on a whiteboard isn’t protected under the military’s policy because that’s not a central tenet of any faith group. Even so, cadets not in leadership roles are free to write what they want, and even share their faith. Leaders aren’t free to do either, Berry said.

While academy officials maintain the cadet involved in this week’s incident removed the verse voluntarily, they told Berry if he hadn’t, they would have forced him to.

The cadet leader will not be punished, academy officials say. The other cadets who wrote verses in protest also won’t be punished, as long as they aren’t in leadership positions. That’s not good enough for either Berry or Weinstein. For now, academy officials seem unconcerned about lawsuit threats from either group. If Weinstein wants to sue, Vidal said, he can sue.

“He’s a private citizen,” Vidal said. “He’s done it before.”

Editor’s note: The fourth paragraph of this article originally characterized Military Religious Freedom Foundation as an “anti-Christian” organization that seeks to “eradicate” religious expression in the military. After further review of Mikey Weinstein’s published writings and interviews, we’ve changed “eradicate” to “limit strictly” and “anti-Christian” to “anti-evangelical.” 

Andrew Branch

Andrew is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C. He was homeschooled for 12 years and recently graduated from N.C. State University. He writes about sports and poverty for WORLD. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewABranch.

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