Air Force Nixes Flyby at Patriotic Christian Event
According to local news reports, the Air Force denied the request of the “God and Country Festival” in Nampa, Idaho, for an aircraft flyby during their July 2 celebration. Reportedly, the festival has had a flyby for the past 42 years, and was surprised by the Air Force’s decision to deny the request this year because of the festival’s religious content.
“I called him immediately and said we’ve been doing this for 42 years, we’ve had flyovers, what is the problem? He said, we have looked up your website and everything on your website seemed to focus on Christianity, ministry booths. In fact, ma’am, it sounds like it focuses on Christianity. It would be great to go to, in fact, if I personally, could come I would, but we can’t endorse such an endeavor, so they couldn’t do the flyover,” said Syme.
Some took umbrage with the military’s denial of the flyby:
For the Obama Administration to deny a flyover for the first time is a slap in the face to all those who proudly serve our country especially when we are at war. These flyovers have been a special part of the ‘God and Country Rally’ for many years.
Will the new policy of President Obama be that a person has to surrender their faith tradition to honor and pay tribute to our courageous men and women who serve in the military?
Michael Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation praised the decision, saying that the flyby would have
allowed [Christianity] to dominate the others by engaging the awesome power, prestige, and financial heft of the state.
(He also accused the organizers of being “fundamentalist,” and suggested they hold the festival in North Korea or Saudi Arabia–an ironic statement, given the fatal persecution of Christians in those countries.)
One defense noted that the point of the flyover was that any religious content of the event was incidental to the reason for the flyby:
It must be stressed that the flyover was not to honor Christianity but to honor our fallen heroes who have proudly given their lives to protect our country and advance the cause of liberty around the world.
The flyover of a religious event by the military is not inherently an endorsement of any religion, nor is the denial of such a request inherently hostility toward it. Every organization that has ever asked for a flyby knows that they are difficult to come by, and logistics and military necessity take precedence. However, when the reason given for the denial is religion, religion does enter the picture.
[On another note, it is somewhat disingenuous to associate the decision with the “Obama administration,” as the decision was probably made far below his level and irrespective of his input or even his knowledge.]
While the Pentagon spokesman may have had the best intentions, his logic was also faulty. Nothing in the regulations governing aerial demonstrations prohibits religious content in events, nor do the regulations assume that a military flyby is a government endorsement of an event or its content. The Tech Sergeant said:
As you may recall…, the DoD authorizes the Air Force to participate in flyovers for…events held in direct support of the five patriotic holidays…Your…request doesn’t fall into [that] approved category, as such, we are unable to approve it.
That’s not exactly what the instructions actually say:
Requests for off-base flyovers will be considered only for aviation-related events…or for patriotic observances held in conjunction with formal observances, open to the public, on [holidays including] Independence Day…when held within seven days of the holiday date.
Since it is evident the festival was not an aviation event, what the Tech Sgt was communicating was that the “God and Country Festival” was determined not to be an inherently patriotic observance associated with Independence Day. That is a legitimate criterion, though the organizers’ complaint about the decision is equally valid (since the festival’s own history and website indicate it is a “patriotic…formal observance, open to the public…” occurring the Wednesday prior to July 4th every year). Even so, that point is debatable without referencing religious topics. Unfortunately, he went on to say:
Air Force and DoD policy prohibit [sic] support for events which appear to endorse, selectively benefit, or favor any special interest group, religious or ideological movement.
While the Pentagon spokesman may have had the best intentions, his logic was faulty. Nothing in the regulations governing aerial demonstrations prohibits religious content in supported events, nor do the regulations assume that a military flyby is a government endorsement of an event or its content. There is similar guidance in ethics regulations, but it was an inappropriate and overly-restrictive application of those rules in this case.
In short, while there is nothing that requires the military to support any event with a flyby, the Air Force should not have used religious association of the event to deny the request. That said, it is highly unlikely that it was a malicious attempt at hostility toward Christianity; rather, the decision was likely the result of a hypersensitivity to religious topics now present in the military.
Not all official military interaction was removed from the event. The same news articles indicated four services were represented, and 79 men and women were sworn into the service.