The Right to Religious Expression at the Air Force Academy

By Bertha, Carlos | The Humanist, September-October 2007 | Go to article overview

The Right to Religious Expression at the Air Force Academy


Bertha, Carlos, The Humanist


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. …

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