AFA superintendent talks religion


This is one of nine religious messages that appeared on cadet whiteboards at the Air Force Academy after the story broke about the first message on Tuesday. - COURTESY MIKEY WEINSTEIN
  • Courtesy Mikey Weinstein
  • This is one of nine religious messages that appeared on cadet whiteboards at the Air Force Academy after the story broke about the first message on Tuesday.

Responding to a firestorm of commentary stemming from a Bible scripture written on a cadet whiteboard this week, Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson called a news conference suddenly this afternoon to talk about religious respect.

The briefing follows a week of headlines including from ABC News, Fox News and other news outlets.

The story broke first here on the Independent's website on Tuesday, and since has gone viral across the country, prompting a letter from Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, to Johnson:
Dear Lieutenant General Johnson,

I am deeply concerned and outraged by recent news reports indicating that an Air Force Cadet was forced to remove a Bible verse from the whiteboard posted outside his room. I was further troubled to learn that the apparent reason the Cadet in question had to remove this verse was due to the fact that he is in a position of leadership. This suggests that a Cadet in a leadership role may have less religious freedom than Cadets in the rank and file.

Religious liberty is a foundational component of America’s greatness, and was rightfully promised by the Constitution to all our nation’s citizens, including those who dedicate their lives to our nation’s defense. This truth should apply throughout all ranks, and those who pursue leadership positions should not be forced to sacrifice their religious freedom in order to lead.

Religious freedom and religious tolerance go hand in hand. Censoring Bible verses or any religious text for that matter, from personal or even common areas at the Air Force Academy suggests an apparent anti-religion bias rather than a rational approach that supports tolerance of all faiths. We are asking future officers to perhaps give even their very lives to protect and defend the Constitution and yet denying them rights from that same Constitution.

While initial reporting has indicated that the Cadet in question is facing no punishment, aside from being forced to remove the Bible verse, I would appreciate a full accounting of this incident. It may be that the officer who censored the Cadet should be the one who should be punished. I would also like an explanation of the apparent distinction drawn between those in leadership and other Cadet’s regarding religious freedom. I would also appreciate an explanation of the apparent influence the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has at the Air Force Academy in legal and media issues relating to decisions on Cadets’ religious practices over the past 5 years. The MRFF is an organization that seems to detest religious expression of any faith, and has become so outlandish in its claims that it should simply be ignored.

The brave men and women serving to protect the Constitutional rights of all Americans should not have their own Constitutional rights stifled as they carry out that task. I urge you to reconsider your decision to censor this Cadet’s religious beliefs, and to set the record straight on where the Air Force stands with regard to the religious liberty of all Cadets.  
"Our local matters become national issues on the national stage," Johnson told reporters, with several senior staff assembled around a conference table.

She says she had spoken to Air Force leaders at the Pentagon this week about the whiteboard incident but gotten no corrective direction from them, but rather only support.

Commandant Brig. Gen. Gregory J. Lengyel outlined what happened. On Monday, a second-degree cadet (junior) placed a Bible scripture on the white board outside his room that he shares with a cadet in a leadership position. Another cadet saw the verse and reported it to her military trainer, saying it caused the cadet to feel uncomfortable. The military trainer and Air Office Commanding spoke to the cadet who posted the verse and explained that because he rooms with a cadet leader, other cadets could mistakenly think the cadet leader wrote the verse and interpret that as undue influence.

Air Force Regulation 1-1 states that service members cannot express their religious views to subordinates on duty, because it could be seen as a requirement that subordinates share those views in order to win favor with the leaders.

After the discussion, Lengyel said, "the cadet took down the white board and put it in his room."

"The cadets had recently had religious respect training which may have made this a fresh item on people's minds," Lengyel said.

He said there will be no punishment for the incident. "I don't think we saw this as a misconduct case. We saw this as keeping a balance in the Air Force position and the First Amendment rights of freedom of expression," he said.

Johnson also noted the academy is trying to balance the instruction's mandate with First Amendment freedom of expression while instilling a culture of commitment and climate of respect. She said she has spoken to the cadet wing and her staff about being respectful of others, including their religious beliefs.

"There are natural tensions built into the Constitution, and we live these every day," she said.

Asked how she feels about people at the academy being more willing to report such incidents to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation rather than through chain of command, Johnson said, "We're trying to have people use the system so we can better understand what the problems are. It's hard to take on things if you don't know what they are."

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