Wednesday, December 2, 2015

USAFA's 'Tebow' prayer stirs controversy

Posted By on Wed, Dec 2, 2015 at 10:42 AM

click to enlarge This photo was taken at last year's Navy game and carried this cutline when released by the Pentagon: "U.S. Air Force Academy football players say a prayer prior to the start of the Air Force vs. Navy football game at the U.S. Air Force Academy's Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo., Oct. 4, 2014. Air Force won the game 30-21." - DEFENSE DEPARTMENT
  • Defense Department
  • This photo was taken at last year's Navy game and carried this cutline when released by the Pentagon: "U.S. Air Force Academy football players say a prayer prior to the start of the Air Force vs. Navy football game at the U.S. Air Force Academy's Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo., Oct. 4, 2014. Air Force won the game 30-21."

It's been more than a decade since Mikey Weinstein began calling out the Air Force Academy's apparent endorsement of Christianity, but still the military college doesn't seem to get it.

In one of the most public expressions of the academy's commitment to one and only one faith, the Falcon football team has taken to doing a "Tebow" kneel in the end zone before the kickoff. Tim Tebow formerly played with the Denver Broncos and always saw fit to kneel and pray so the world could witness his piety. He soon was cut from the Denver team because, well, he just wasn't very good.

Seems the Falcons, though, adopted this outward symbol of the academy's preferred religion and have been doing the Tebow kneel for several years, most recently last weekend during the New Mexico game, witnessed by Weinstein, who says 57 of the 60-member team did so. The Falcons lost the game.

Weinstein is understandably astonished this has been allowed to continue, especially considering the players are considered on duty for the military while in their football uniforms, and all home games are required formations for cadets. So we have the military representing to the world that Christianity is the nation's religion.

Here's what one retired Air Force general and academy grad had to say about the Tebow bow in an email to Weinstein:
As with most issues of civil liberty there is wide latitude for opinion ...

At question here is where to draw the line - is one player pointing upwards after scoring permissible? Tim Tebow performing much more symbolic gesture on the sideline? Two players kneeling together? 3? 4? The full team?

In my view it seems best to start from what is clearly should not be condoned and work down from there until the line between personal liberty and political correctness gets murky.

Not permissible is for a government organization to compel members to perform any religious activity - period - during the conduct of official business. The AFA team is conducting official business during football games and practice on and off the field.

If the coaching staff says there is no coercion to join prayer circles, I'd argue that if most players or even just key individuals call for a religious prayer, those choosing not to participate are by definition "not on the team." They are trained to be good teammates - that's a grading/loyalty criteria - so they will naturally feel compelled to join.

This leads to the second reason to discontinue the practice - it's not permissible for a coaching staff to allow sub-groups that can alienate some team members based on religious differences. Football coaches need to ban activity that might break down the cohesion of their team.

The third and last problem in my view is that public sporting events aren't confined to stadiums or the boundaries of the U.S. They are available globally. If our Islamic Extremist propaganda experts use a little imagination the images of cadets praying together on the football field can be equated to servicemen and women conducting a crusade on Middle Eastern battlefields. This plays easily into the hands of those trying to portray Muslims as victims of the West, and who make a case to justify defensive jihad.

Bottom line: Academy leaders and coaches should ensure religious observances in groups are kept off the field and out of the locker room.

Weinstein also received other commentary. Here's what an active duty Air Force general officer said:
Regardless of the constitutional “legalities” of essentially the entire USAFA football team praying so visibly en masse in public before the game, the optics of that striking visual “message”is just completely unacceptable for the rest of the nation and the world to see. The reasons are made clear below but the very real fear of our Islamic fundamentalist enemies capitalizing on the whole AF football team praying, in order to reinforce their jihadist narrative, is the most consideration important from my view.... The optics are not just bad but potentially deadly.
A senior Air Force officer had this to say to Weinstein:
 I'm a fervent fan of all AFA sports and, in the last 15 years at least, I've only seen this sort of thing occur with our football team. Other teams have huddles, and I'm not certain some of those huddles don't include prayers, but there's no obvious and outward sign to the ticketed or viewing public that it's a meeting centered on ONE religious viewpoint. It's obviously a christian prayer at the football games because ALL of the participants (and it seems like it's all of the team except for the obviously heathen kickers, punter, and long-snappers) are doing a full-fledged "Tebow" in the end-zone, simultaneously. That's NOT a coincidence and their intent is quite clear.
Lastly, this reportedly came to Weinstein from a football player:
I am a member of and play on the Air Force Falcons football team. We have a bad problem going on here now. And I have asked the MRFF to please help me and others on the team in a certain matter regarding public religious practices.

Please keep my name out of all of this because of what they could do to me for going to you.

The problem is specifically the kneeling down in public prayer by most of the members of our football team. Certainly the majority. This has been done prior to our games on the playing field right in front of everyone in attendance in the stadiums. And I and others ask for the MRFF to help us get it to stop.

The coaches and others are not officially or directly making us do it together. But some clearly favor it. That is for certain. It is certain cadets on the team who are viewed as leaders (and even some who are not but still have team influence) who are leading the public praying. If you don’t go along with it you are not going to be viewed as a good follower or teammate. I am not alone. There are enough of us who feel pressured to conform and this is wrong. I have not seen any of our opponents do what our so many players on the AFA team have been doing. I mean virtually the whole team kneeling down and praying on the field in front of the crowds. This is wrong for several reasons which I shouldn’t have to go into because it’s obvious.

Weinstein shared all of the above with the academy on Tuesday and requested that the practice of openly praying together be halted immediately, ahead of the Falcon game on Saturday in San Diego for the Mountain West Conference title.

And what did the academy say in response?

An email sent to Weinstein sent at 7:41 p.m. on Tuesday from Brian Hill, vice director of athletics:
Thank you for your 2 emails sent 1 Dec at 1608 and 1609 MST Mr. Weinstein.

I would like to refer you to the USAFA Inspector General, Col David Kuenzli at 719-333-3490. If you or any of your contacts choose to file a complaint or grievance it will be processed in accordance with Air Force standards, instructions and law.

Have a great evening.

Weinstein points to a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said:
While the members of the military are not excluded from the protection granted by the First Amendment, the different character of the military community and of the military mission requires a different application of those protections. The fundamental necessity for obedience, and the consequent necessity for imposition of discipline, may render permissible within the military that which would be constitutionally impermissible outside it.
Such as barring outward displays of a certain religious faith while in uniform and representing the U.S. government's lethal arm, the military.

There's also this court ruling that came in response to the question of whether a government school's allowing student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Weinstein's comment on the whole ordeal:
No one is a bigger fan of Air Force Academy football than I am. In fact, most of MRFF’s 143 USAFA cadets, faculty members and staff who have asked for MRFF’s help in this current unconstitutional outrage are huge fans of the team. This number includes Air Force football players who are currently ON that team as well as 11 other active duty and veteran USAF members who are not stationed at the Academy. However, ALL of MRFF’s 154 clients realize that it is far more important to be fervent “fans" of the United States Constitution. The Academy’s unfettered endorsement of mass pre-game, football team prayers, on the field of play, both at Falcon Stadium and in the football stadiums of its opponents, is clearly violative of Air Force regulations (specifically, AF Instruction 1-1, Section 2.12) and the No Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as well as the No Religious Test mandate of Clause 3, Article VI of the Constitution. These cadet-led, cadet-initiated public prayer demonstrations run directly counter to the U.S. Supreme Court’s specific prohibition of such activities as held in its seminal 2000 ruling of "Santa Fe Independant School District vs. Doe, 530 U.S. 290”. Additionally, as the football players and most Academy Air Force personnel are also active duty military members, as buttressed by the fact that all football games are absolutely mandatory military formations for both the football players and the Cadet Wing and many other Academy staff, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling significantly limiting the First Amendment rights of military members in the landmark 1974 case of “Parker vs. Levy, 417 U.S. 733” also fully applies here.

You know, the Air Force Academy has strict prohibitions against “PDA” or "public displays of affection" by its cadets, faculty and staff. You’re not even allowed to be caught holding hands in public with one’s girlfriend or boyfriend, significant other or spouse. Given its horrific record of unconstitutional, abhorrent church-state violations scandalously spanning multiple decades now, it’s quite obvious that USAFA has NO such prohibitions on “PDR” or “public displays of religiosity”.

Indeed, apparently the only allowed, or maybe I should say “encouraged” PDA is holding hands in public with Jesus."

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