Cross Found at USAFA Pagan Circle

This incident has been so mis-reported that it was initially just ignored; however, when General Gould published a statement agreeing that this incident has been “sensationalized,” he gave credence to the view that this situation is being grossly mischaracterized, and that people are inappropriately using it for their personal advancement.  An analysis thus follows…

Despite the positive hullabaloo over the US Air Force Academy pagan circle, Michael Weinstein’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation has now denounced the placement of a cross at the site, an act that occurred before the recent positive press reports.  Though the incident took place several weeks ago, the MRFF appeared to time the press release to counter the recent spate of “good news” about religious tolerance at USAFA.

For the record, it should go without saying that it is inappropriate to place contravening religious symbology in another faith’s area.  Those who do so should be corrected.  That said, such conduct does not prove a vast right-wing conspiracy of one-religion world domination, nor does it indicate institutional bias on the part of any government agency.

Though the population that works and lives on the Academy is a somewhat filtered group, it is still largely composed of 18 to 22 year olds who are there for a physical, academic, military, and character education.  Like other college campuses and young military groups, they have the ability to make astounding sacrifices–and also poor decisions.  If they didn’t, there would be no need for the dreaded Form 10 or tours (and no, they’re not that kind of “tour”).

Without excusing this incident, it is helpful to understand precisely what occurred, because the perception of what happened is not necessarily the fact of what happened–as General Gould accurately conveys.  For example, Michael Weinstein described as “abhorrent” the

placing of a large, wooden cross at the official worship site of the United States Air Force Academy’s earth-centered religions

At FoxNews, the description was less florid but more specific:

Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said an Air Force Academy staffer spotted the cross — erected with railroad ties — lying against a rock at a worship area for pagan groups at the academy

Neither of those is entirely accurate, and they are sensationalized versions of events.  The implication is that someone hauled a cross to the site and planted it there, but no one did any such thing.  The “large, wooden” railroad ties were already at the site, as indicated by its sponsor, TSgt Brandon Longcrier.  They were laid on the ground, side by side, and were intended to hold peoples’ shoes.  Given the weight of the accusations, this is not an insignificant fact, and one that the Academy Superintendent, LtGen Gould, appeared to specifically point out.  Unfortunately, a typo in his statement makes it difficult to understand:

The cross was made of railroad ties being left [sic] at the Earth worship site.

It is unclear if he meant the cross was made “and left” or that the wood from which it was made had “been left” on the site.

In addition to a cross not being brought to the site, it also wasn’t exactly “built” or “made.”  As is evident from the picture, one beam was balanced on a rock, and the other was leaned against it.  The result is, indeed, the shape of a cross.  But it is one created by leaning two loose boards, which had been laying on the ground nearby, onto each other; it is evident from the photo that the two boards making the “cross” weren’t even connected to each other.  The reason it looked like it was a cross “lying against a rock” was because both beams required it for support.

In order to undo this “vandalism” (or what Weinstein called a “hate crime”), they simply laid the planks back on the ground.  Despite the grandiose language, it does not equate to “spray-painting,” “damaging,” or the “destruction” of another religion’s facilities.

It is also worth noting that the rock circles were there before Longcrier and the Chaplains claimed them for a pagan worship area.  The clearing, while not necessarily in a high traffic path, has been known by cadets for years (it’s called the “LZ”), and it is frequented for a variety of reasons (both proper and not, and both religious and not).  Given the nature of the cadet culture, it is not unforeseeable that some who felt their social area had been “acquired” by pagans chose to express their displeasure, even if their motivation wasn’t religious.

None of this excuses the act of putting the appearance of a cross on a pagan site.  But it also demonstrates that it is not the sensationalized act it is being made out to be.  For example, Weinstein and the MRFF’s Chris Rodda have already concluded that the perpetrators were not only Christians, but “Christian supremacists.”  (They fail to explain what about the situation makes it a supremacist act.)

Weinstein continues his tradition of unilaterally assigning religious labels to other people (despite his threat of suing people who do the same to him) in declaring that fundamentalist Christians were responsible for the cross, though he provides no evidence to explain how he knows either fundamentalists or Christians were responsible.  He makes the accusation despite the fact Christians hold no exclusive right to such symbology, and despite the fact that no one has concluded the railroad ties were even placed by a Christian.  Besides calling the cross a “fundamentalist Christian gang marker” and “giant turd,” Weinstein also said it was a

heinous act of unconstitutional fundamentalist Christian supremacy

In making such a statement, Weinstein again displays his Constitutional confusion, as American citizens cannot commit “unConstitutional” acts — only the government can.  He appears to be implying the cross was placed by the government or with its support, and he is ignoring the government’s response to the incident that very evidently disproves that point.

Weinstein also calls the crossed boards an event of “religious hatred” and a “hate crime of the most serious magnitude” — inappropriately strong words, given historical examples of religious hatred in the world.

The abhorrent placing of a large, wooden cross at the official worship site of the United States Air Force Academy’s earth-centered religions is nothing short of a despicable, cold and calculated hate crime of the most serious magnitude.

In an email quoted by the Colorado Springs Gazette, Longcrier says

“My cadets are scared and I’m scared for them,” Longcrier said in the e-mail, which was made available to The Gazette this morning.

He continued: “We have been thrown under the bus by the system we trusted and the hate crime against us has been ignored. Now there are rumors of more hate crimes to come. We do not feel safe.”

However, the “rumors” are not related to the cross at the circle — nor are they local.  The source is a wide variety of internet comments about the establishment of the pagan circle, an issue separate from the cross incident.  Elsewhere, Longcrier has said:

You should see the hate spewing on some of these websites where the ‘Circle’ article has been posted. These are the people I’m worried about. Do I need to warn my cadets to fear for their safety now? How sad would that be if our victory turns into a tragedy due to the ignorance and hate from the fundies!

That statement was publicized just one day after this quote was published by NBC:

Longcrier and [Chaplain (LtCol) Wiliam] Ziegler said they’ve heard no criticism of the new worship space but both noted its presence was just made public.

“Not to say that it’s not coming, but so far we haven’t had any real issues,” Longcrier said.

Chaplain (LtCol) Ziegler, the same Chaplain who has supported the pagan effort throughout ordeal, almost sounded taken aback by the reversal in attitude and extremism displayed by Weinstein:

I can certainly understand why they would be upset, but they need to understand the chapel and leadership at the AFA is completely supportive of their right to freely exercise their faith.

Weinstein seems intent on criticizing the Academy regardless what it does.

Finally, Weinstein ensures his continuing press coverage by making his standard threats of further action should the Academy not address this issue to his satisfaction.

He said he will demand that the incident be treated as a hate crime, not mere vandalism, and pledged to take his fight to the Justice Department if the Air Force Academy fails to proceed with a serious investigation.

What some may feel to realize is there is no such thing as a hate crime under the UCMJ, which is the code of law under which military members (including cadets) would be prosecuted.  There is allowance for presenting evidence that an offense was a “hate crime” to the sentencing authority after a court-martial conviction.  Under the UCMJ, however, military members cannot be charged with hate crimes.  Given the facts of this incident, it is highly unlikely that a court-martial would be an appropriate course of action.

As an educational and training institution, the Academy is generally averse to such stern measures except in egregious circumstances.  If this incident is proven to be anything less than an intentional, coordinated effort to deface and threaten religious freedoms and create a hostile environment, it is unlikely it would rise to that level.  Even so, if a court-martial were chosen, the most likely outcome would be dismissal from the academy, a sentence that would not require the application of “hate crime” language.

Thus, Weinstein is simply laying the foundation for a future complaint, because he has demanded an impossible result.

While there have been implications he would try to involve the FBI, Weinstein would still need to establish that a crime had been committed.  Criminal vandalism requires damage or destruction.  Picking up two pieces of wood and leaning them against a rock does neither.  Simply being offensive is not a hate crime.  In fact, it’s not a crime at all.

With regard to General Gould, Weinstein said

“I’m troubled. I’m confused and I’m disappointed. I’m struggling with where we are right now.”

It would appear Weinstein is taking full advantage of Gould’s previous indications of appeasement toward Weinstein’s invective.

It is certainly possible, though not a given, that cadets were responsible for the placement of the boards in the shape of a cross.  If they are identified, they should be corrected, but this admonishment does not rise to the crucifixion that Weinstein demands.  In sensationalizing the incident, Weinstein does a disservice both to his cause and his “client.”  Religious freedom is not advanced by unsupported accusations of religious conflict.

Leaving a cross on a pagan circle is not an appropriate act, especially in a military environment, as cadets and base staff are.  Those responsible should be held accountable.

Public vitriol toward and prejudicial statements about a religious faith are, likewise, inappropriate, especially in a military environment.  While some have recognized the florid hyperbole, it is unlikely those responsible will be held to account.