Air Force to Document, Explain USAFA Religious Policy
Since when is the standard of what’s constitutional based on what offends someone else?
– Tony Perkins, Family Research Council, addressing USAFA’s statement that a Bible verse was removed because it made someone feel “uncomfortable.”
Congressman Mike McIntyre (D-NC) asked Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James if she would provide an official explanation of the USAFA Bible verse incident:
Would you be willing to submit a detailed explanation within the next 10 days…of the event that occurred…, what the Air Force Academy policy is, and…how that policy was applied in this situation?
Secretary James agreed to do so. The Air Force has already said its policy is found in AFI 1-1, which says
Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. For example, they must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity.
How they will explain their application of that AFI will be interesting, since it is difficult to conceive a cadet’s Bible verse establishing religion or using an official position to promote his beliefs. Further, according to advocacy groups the Air Force will likely have to justify how they can restrict religious content but not non-religious content in precisely the same forum.
Mathew Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, added that the incident “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 that desire to serve their country.”
The Air Force explanation will be interesting in light of two things. First, the very next paragraph of AFI 1-1 says [emphasis added]
Supporting the right of free exercise of religion relates directly to the Air Force core values and the ability to maintain an effective team…
You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.
Reactions from USAFA cadets indicated a marked lack of “confidence” in practicing their faith because of confusion about Air Force policy. Second, US law says
Unless it could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline, the Armed Forces shall accommodate individual expressions of belief of a member of the armed forces reflecting the sincerely held conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs…
(One Congressman expressed concern over the perception “good order and discipline” was becoming an “excuse” for restricting religious liberty in response to the slightest offense.)
Mike Berry of the Liberty Institute spoke in person with Col Paul Barzler, the JAG at the US Air Force Academy, who reportedly explained the situation in a way that baffled the civil liberties lawyer:
I was stunned to find out that, had the cadet not removed the verse, Academy officials would have ordered him to do so…Col. Barzler explained that, because the cadet held a leadership position, it could create the perception that he was forcing his religious beliefs on subordinates. I pointed out that under the Constitution, federal law, and military regulations, cadets have the right to religious exercise. I was shocked when he responded that Air Force policy, from the Pentagon, is that the term “religious exercise” does not include written or verbal speech.
Interesting, especially given that the law uses the term “individual expressions of belief,” not “religious exercise” — and says the military is required to accommodate “expressions” except under limited circumstances. Further:
Berry said [USAFA] 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.
LtGen Michelle Johnson, USAFA Superintendent, issued a second, 600-word statement that was criticized by a few for not explaining the policy in a way that other cadets could follow. (Again, her statement appeared to focus on the issue of “respect” only on the part of cadets exercising religious liberty. She did not address the issue of respect or tolerance on the part of those who claimed offense.)
As if on cue, multiple media reports have explained that cadets feel “mass confusion” over what the policy is. Multiple commenters in multiple forums have begged the Air Force to simply state a clear, executable policy. The controversy is being fed as much by ambiguity and confusion as it is by anything else.
Hopefully, the Air Force’s promised response to Congress will provide clarity.