The Right to Religious Expression at the Air Force Academy

Stories about religious intolerance at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) started hitting the media in November 2004 with the Colorado Springs Gazette taking the lead. The problem of religious favoritism and intolerance was identified shortly after the results of a spring 2004 faculty survey were analyzed.

The Academy had just weathered a brutal sexual assault scandal, so cynical reactions to this new attention abounded. Some complained that the media was blowing things out of proportion again. Others insisted that this issue of religious intolerance was a movement led by bleeding-heart liberals and secularists to trample on Christians’ rights to exercise their religion and express their faith.

Speaking as a faculty member at the Academy, though admittedly a biased one, I can say that the media didn’t blow anything out of proportion–if anything, they missed out on some of the more objectionable examples of theocratic mischief. But it’s the second reaction that most concerns me; clearly, the right to religious expression could use some clarification.

There are two main issues here: the mission of the institution and what sort of institution it is. According to page one of the USAFA Officer Development System Handbook of February 2004, the mission of the Air Force Academy is to “graduate lieutenants of character” for the U.S. Air Force. Faculty members are here to educate students, while air officers commanding–normally active-duty Air Force majors in charge of a squadron of 120-plus cadets–are here to provide basic military training to would-be lieutenants. This seems straightforward enough.

But the second issue throws a bit of a wrench in things. The USAFA is a military unit and, as such, it is also an institution of the federal government. Employees of the Academy are therefore subject to all sorts of laws and regulations to which ordinary university professors are not. For example, the law–as currently written–makes what I write in my office the possession of the government, which isn’t subject to copyright. This means that, unlike a professor at the neighboring Colorado College, I can’t write a book, negotiate to get it published, and earn royalties from it.

Similarly, a colleague at a regular university can say just about anything in class. The point of academic freedom is that it allows for a wide variety of points of view to be presented to students so that they can evaluate merits and faults of the arguments in question. Particularly with tenured faculty, the assumption is that these professors have had the opportunity to research their chosen field of study extensively, which presumably would result in them being less likely to say something really stupid. Be that as it may, tenure ensures that what they say as experts won’t come back to haunt them, regardless of how outlandish or offensive the claim. Even here there are exceptions; overtly lewd conduct, for example, under the guise of “freedom of expression,” wouldn’t be tolerated even in the most liberal of colleges.

What I may say in class is curtailed by the establishment clause of the First Amendment. As a representative of the U.S. government–which I most certainly am as a member of the faculty–I can’t tell cadets that becoming a Christian is the only way to salvation, or that God is the adult version of an invisible friend. Could I say these things if I were to preface them with “In my opinion”? Well, no, because despite my best intentions, the military structure of the USAFA makes me the de facto commander of the classroom, and what the commander says can be–and often is–construed as the government’s position on an issue.

Brigadier General John A. Weida arrived at the Academy in April of 2003 as the new commandant of cadets. He had been brought in as part of the new guard to fix the problems associated with the sexual assault scandal that plagued the academy during that time. For several months he was also the acting superintendent of the Academy, a job usually filled by a lieutenant general–two ranks above Weida’s freshly pinned star. In this capacity, he sent every USAFA employee an e-mail that reminded people of the forthcoming National Day of Prayer. His message may have been appropriate if not for a single sentence, in bold letters, that instructed people to “ask the Lord to give us the wisdom to discover the right, the courage to choose it, and the strength to make it endure. . . . He has a plan for each and every one of us.”

There was quite a stir, as can be imagined, following this e-mail. So far as I could tell, the most common issue of debate was whether the e-mail was to be taken as directive or whether it was meant as a mere reminder, from a person who has strong personal religious beliefs, to others who cared about these sorts of events.

Even if General Weida intended the latter, I fail to see how the appearance of the former could be escaped. But the Air Force Office of the Inspector General (OIG) nonetheless cleared Weida of any wrongdoing associated with this e-mail–as well as of five other allegations of religious intolerance. A letter dated June 21, 2005, states that the e-mail “did not violate any published standard.” The OIG’s findings might reflect a strict interpretation of applicable standards for each allegation, but from my perspective, as an Academy employee who doesn’t share Weida’s religious beliefs, I feel that his actions–particularly when taken as a whole–smacked of religious establishment. And this is precisely the same problem confronting the faculty member in the classroom: can officers of the U.S. government (whether wearing a military uniform or under a civilian contract) ever really avoid being directive?

This brings us to another question. Do the circumstances under which I teach–namely, the power differential created by the commander/cadet relationship–infringe upon my right to freedom of expression? Yes, of course they do, but for good reason. I could easily proffer my opinion about whether eating veal is moral, but there is no amendment to the Constitution that says: “Congress shall not establish veal-eating nor prevent the free consumption thereof,” whereas there is a parallel restriction when it comes to religious matters.

The next obvious question is this: can the USAFA fulfill its mission and abide by the special rules it must follow regarding the expression of religious views? The answer is yes. This institution, as an entity of the federal government, may not endorse, or even appear to endorse, any particular religious tradition over another or, for that matter, religion over non-religion. But this doesn’t mean that members of this organization (cadets and Academy employees alike) can’t practice their religion of choice–if they have one. People ought to be afforded the opportunity to practice their faith so long as it fits within their ability to carry out their mission. This means that the Academy does have a duty to make it possible for people to worship, if they so desire and provided such activities don’t interfere with the mission. Other than that, not that this is a small matter, religion doesn’t belong here. Until this is understood, the media won’t have a shortage of stories or a need to blow anything out of proportion.

The good news is that current leadership is taking the matter seriously. Faculty members and staff underwent a series of training sessions called “Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People” (RSVP) and similar seminars are planned for the near future. Though a cadet was denied the right to form a similar group in the past, there is now an official “Freethinkers” organization formed under the Chaplain’s Office Special Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE). General Weida earned a second star and has since been replaced by a new commandant of cadets, Brigadier General Susan Desjardins.

But there is work to do. If we are going to value both religion and government, a proper understanding of what it means for the Academy to be a federal entity is crucial. The fact is that USAFA faculty members represent the U. S. government when they lead a class here and, try as they may to distinguish their personal positions from official policy, their status prevents the average cadet from being able to make that distinction.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the United States Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force, or the federal government of the United States.

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