Senator Lists USAFA Pagan Chapel in Government Waste
The 2011 edition of the annual “Wastebook” (pdf) published by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), which contains a list of “wasteful and low priority government spending,” includes the “Falcon Circle” erected by the US Air Force Academy earlier in the year.
79) Air Force Academy Builds “Stonehenge-like Worship Center” – (CO) $51,474
The worship center is “for the handful of current or future cadets whose religions fall under the broad category of ‘Earth-based,'” which includes Wiccans, druids and pagans.
Three students out of 4,300 students self-reported as currently having an “earth-based” religion…
The American people support religious freedom, but this investment challenges their faith in government to ever make smart budget choices.
Senator Coburn seems to make the point that his complaint is an issue of “smart budget choices” rather than a lack of desire to support religious freedom. It’s also important to note that millions of dollars are spent on US military facilities to support the religious liberty of US troops.
While one could argue the “per capita” for pagans was a bit higher than other faiths, liberty is not necessarily a function of per-person finances. On the other hand, the cadet pagans were not denied liberty before the pagan chapel/Falcon Circle was erected. The decision to build the outdoor chapel area was one of proactive support, not required accommodation.
That’s an important point, because neither the US military nor the government has the finances or resources to provide personnel or facilities specific to every conceivable faith group. The post-modern militant secularist translation of that constraint has been “all or nothing” — if you can’t afford all, members of the military should get none. There is no basis in liberty, American tradition, or the Constitution for such a construct.
As a result, the government has to choose where to spend the taxpayers’ money, where to make exceptions in policy, and where to make extra effort beyond normal operations to support a faith group. The pagan circle appears to have fallen under that last category. USAFA was under no obligation to create a facility, particularly given the minority nature of the faith and its lack of representation. Given the unusually high visibility and attendance at its unveiling, however, it seems at least some of the motivation may have been external to the few cadets who would ultimately use it.
In the grand scheme of things, $51,000 isn’t that much money in government. Many facilities likely spend more than that on toner for printers. Senator Coburn, of course, is looking at the broader picture — $50k here, $50k there, certainly add up across the government. Even so, of the 100 examples in Senator Coburn’s list, only 9 had budgets less than the chapel. (The chapel beat out the Coast Guard Mardi Gras float, a chocolate festival, and sno-cone machines in Michigan, for example.)
On one hand, in an era in which USAFA and the military are constantly defending religious freedom from critics like Michael Weinstein, it did create political capital. On the other, it may have created a liability for when future groups of just a couple of adherents start asking for their dedicated “worship” spaces.
Was the “stonehenge-like worship center” a “smart budget choice”?
USAFA had an interesting official response: There technically isn’t an ‘earth-centered’ worship center at the Academy:
“Technically, there is no designated worship space for the Earth-Centered Spirituality, atheist or humanist cadets similar to the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist Cadet Faith Communities,” the academy wrote in a statement. “The Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle, an outdoor worship space, is available to all cadet faith communities to use with the earth-centered spirituality cadets having scheduling priority.”
That’s interesting, particularly since TSgt Brandon Longcrier and Maj Kelly Ihme, the former and current active duty representatives of the groups, are both quoted complaining about Christians praying at the site:
We already had incidents where Christians would go up there to pray for our sins and that isn’t what I wanted to be happening up at our sacred space.
According to the Academy’s statement, that’s no problem at all.