Monday, April 14, 2014

New review ordered for AF instruction on religion

Posted By on Mon, Apr 14, 2014 at 1:21 PM

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Such a brouhaha erupted over a cadet writing a Bible verse on his dorm whiteboard that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has asked Air Force chaplains and lawyers to conduct a special review of the relevant Air Force Instruction. 

After an Air Force Academy cadet removed a Bible verse from his dorm whiteboard in mid-March out of religious sensitivity for others, a group of organizations accused the academy of actions that "chill speech at the Academy, harm morale, and create unnecessary confusion for cadets."

Academy officials say the cadet chose to remove the message, but the fundamentalist Christian American Family Association and 20 other organizations sent the academy a letter on March 31, saying the cadet was inappropriately pressured.

“Once the Academy allowed the cadets the opportunity to express themselves on their white boards, it became unacceptable to censor that speech based on its specific content or general subject matter as enunciated,” the letter states. It also alleged the cadet was pressured “solely due to its religious and Christian content,” which violates the First Amendment's freedom of expression clause.

The whiteboard issue went viral after someone reported it to Mikey Weinstein with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Weinstein called the March 31 letter “utter idiocy.”

A Defense Department Instruction bars military personnel from sharing their religion with others over whom they have authority. The Air Force Instruction does the same. The cadet at issue roomed with a cadet leader, academy officials have said, which could have given the impression that the cadet leader looked more favorably on those who shared his religious beliefs.

But the instruction now will under go further study, apparently.

The academy issued a statement on Monday saying that the 21 groups have raised questions about whether the instruction is more restrictive than the U.S. Constitution.

In defense of how the academy handled the issue, the academy said its actions were taken to ensure "a command climate of respect for all."

The academy's statement also noted:

Clearly, there are larger national issues at play which both CSAF [Chief of Staff of the Air Force] and SECAF [Secretary of the Air Force] recognize. In her recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Secretary of the Air Force noted that AFI1-1 makes good sense and provides a balanced approach.

However, in practice we are finding that there are gray areas. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force will gather together senior Chaplains from across the Air Force, including USAFA, along with attorneys from the General Counsel's office to review this policy in light of recent changes in the law from FY 13 & 14 NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] and the new DOD Instruction published earlier this year. The goal of that review is to clarify where the 'rubber meets the road' and ensure dignity and respect for all.

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