03 November 2005

The Air Force Academy and Religion

A first ammendment lawsuit has been filed against the Air Force, over the issue of proselytizing. The plaintiffs in this case, including four active-duty officers who are recent graduates of the Air Force Academy, feel that they have the right to not be exposed to proselytization while on duty. The same set of guidelines that lead to the lawsuit have also come under fire from Christian Evangelicals, who feel that the guidelines go too far in restricting their rights to spread their religious message.

The relevant portion of the first amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;". The problem in this case is that it isn't possible to satisfy both clauses at the same time.

On one side, there is the issue of establishment, and the issue of coercion. Senior officers in the military have extrordinary power, particularly over those who want to be career military. A single bad performance review from a superior can totally kill any chances for future advancement. Not pissing off the boss is hugely important. Under those circumstances, it is difficult to see how an "invitation" by a commanding officer to pray at the start of a staff meeting could be seen as something akin to an order, or why subordinates would be very reluctant to say anything if the religious statements of a superior were making them feel uncomfortable. The commanding officer is the representative of the government, and given the nature of the military it is difficult to see how the governmental function could be overlooked, particularly during duty hours. That is a de-facto establishment of religion. On the other side, there is the issue of free excercise. Evangelical Christians believe that it is their religious duty to evangelize. If you tell a commanding officer that he cannot tell his subordinates about his religious beliefs, you are restricting his right to freely excercise his religion.

This is going to be an interesting case to follow.
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