Bias At The Academy

The Air Force And Religious Liberty

Whether Air Force officials care to acknowledge it or not, they have a real problem on their hands.

Recent complaints from cadets, staff and faculty have exposed a pattern of favoritism toward evangelical Christianity and bias toward other religions at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Americans United detailed these allegations in a 14-page report delivered to the Pentagon in late April. At first, Air Force officials seemed to take the matter seriously and announced that a task force would visit the Academy and investigate the allegations.

But almost immediately, the officials began sending contradictory signals. The Task Force stayed at the Academy less than a week. MeLinda Morton, an Academy chaplain who had publicly complained about the atmosphere, was dismissed. Perhaps most disturbingly, Gen. Johnny Weida, the Academy’s commandant of cadets who has been accused of pressuring cadets to embrace evangelical Christianity during Academy events, was put in line for a promotion from one star to two.

More than a whiff of scandal is emanating from the Academy these days. Morton said she was dismissed from her chaplain duties after the chief chaplain, Col. Michael Whittington, pressured her to deny details of what happened during a religious service for new cadets last summer.

Morton says that service was heavy on fundamentalist proselytizing. Despite the fact that hundreds were in attendance, Academy officials have repeatedly downplayed the incident.

Not surprisingly, the far right is rallying to the Academy’s defense. Focus on the Family has accused AU of conducting a “witch hunt,” and The Weekly Standard magazine asserted that AU’s report was useless because it lacked footnotes! (The Standard apparently confused the report with someone’s graduate thesis.)

Yet unpleasant facts remain for the right wing: AU attorneys interviewed nearly 20 people in compiling the report and pored over extensive documentation. The Air Force has never denied its central findings.

Perhaps even more tellingly, since the report was made public, Americans United has been inundated with e-mails and calls from active-duty and former military personnel, both at the Academy and elsewhere, complaining of similar problems. Many of the messages end with the same plea: “Please don’t use my name.”

The individuals making these complaints know that their constitutional rights are being violated and they also know they can be punished for speaking out. Some, like Morton, have done so anyway despite the risk. As Morton told USA Today, “I don’t think that I have much future in the Air Force.”

That’s exactly the problem. Good people who want to serve their country should not be forced out of the service because of religious bigotry. Americans of all faiths and none should be welcome to serve their country.

It’s time for the Air Force to end the evangelism and get back to its core mission: defending the American way of life and the Constitution a document that ensures religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

North Carolina Church Split Teaches Lesson On Religion, Politics

The Rev. Chan Chandler has learned the hard way that many people don’t cotton to the mixing of religion and partisan politics.

Chandler, pastor of East Waynesville Baptist Church in Waynesville, N.C., was fond of giving politically charged sermons. During last year’s elections, he went too far and asserted in one sermon that anyone in the congregation who voted for Democrat John Kerry should “repent or resign.”

After the election, Chandler continued using his pulpit to advance political causes. Things came to a head last month when Chandler orchestrated the expulsion of nine members from the church all Democrats. Forty others who attend the 100-member congregation walked out in protest.

At a stormy meeting that followed a few days later, Chandler resigned his pulpit. “For me to remain now would only cause more hurt for me and my family,” he said.

Chandler’s pulpit attacks on Kerry clearly violated the Internal Revenue Code, which prohibits non-profit groups from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Americans United had asked the IRS to investigate, but now that Chandler has left the church it’s likely the tax agency won’t bother.

Still, this unhappy incident exposes an often-overlooked problem with pulpit politicking: It not only violates federal law, it divides congregations and generates an enormous amount of ill will.

Most pastors across America realize this. They understand that their job is to minister to their flocks, not act as shills for politicians. These pastors encourage voting and good civic behavior but don’t hand out endorsements.

Americans are divided enough over politics these days. Many people long for the days when we lived not in “red states” and “blue states” but simply American states. Few want to see those divisions invade the pews of the church.

U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) has introduced a misguided measure that would lift the IRS ban on pulpit politicking. His “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act” (H.R. 235) is a bad idea from a legal perspective, but the Waynesville incident exposes its more serious fault: It will leave divided churches, torn asunder by infighting and political jockeying, in its wake.

For the good of democracy as well as the integrity of religious congregations, we must make sure that Rep. Jones does not succeed.