Save this content for laterSave this content on your device for later, even while offline Sign in with FacebookSign in with your Facebook account Close

AFA whiteboard flap prompts Congressional questions, cadet humor

March 14, 2014 Updated: March 14, 2014 at 7:08 pm

The Air Force's top two leaders spent nearly as much time answering questions about religious issues at the Air Force Academy as they did about proposed cuts during a Friday hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

At issue is a dry-erase board outside an academy dorm. On Monday, a Bible scripture was written on it and removed hours later at the behest of commanders. Both actions are under scrutiny. Air Force bosses say it's a big reaction to a tiny incident.

"The single biggest frustration I've had in this job is the perception that somehow there is religious persecution inside the United States Air Force," Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh told the committee after questions about the incident. "It is not true. We have incidents like everybody has incidents."

Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson addressed the issue, which some have since dubbed "whiteboard gate," in her office on campus. She said she's under fire from religious groups and organizations that want religion out of the military.

"We really find ourselves in the middle of this national debate," she said.

Academy leaders say the recent issue was handled within hours. A cadet complained to a sergeant that the overt religious display made him "uncomfortable," Johnson said.

The sergeant and other leaders met with the cadet who posted the scripture and he agreed to take it down, said Brig. Gen. Gregory Lengyel, the academy's commandant of cadets. No orders were given regarding the posting, which academy bosses say falls into a gray area of Air Force rules.

The Air Force forbids leaders from expressing religion in ways that would pressure subordinates or promote their brand of faith, or lack of it.

But airmen have a right to practice their faith freely.

Johnson said the academy is working to balance those opposing forces in the dormitories where cadets live and work during their four years at the school.

"Are we perfect? Probably not," she said.

The removal of the Bible verse prompted U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, to claim in a letter to the academy that commanders are quashing religion.

"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," Lamborn wrote.

On the other side is Mikey Weinstein, head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who says any scripture posted in hallways is an affront, and Johnson is wrong for seeing two sides to the dry-erase Bible message.

Weinstein has fought the academy for years with claims that school fosters a culture of proselytizing.

Since Monday, there's been a wave of freedom, religious and otherwise, on the 2,000 whiteboards outside cadet dorm rooms.

In response to the online flap that developed over Monday's posting and erasure, hundreds of cadets took up their pens and posted quotes from the Bible, Talmud, Qu'ran and non-religious sources.

"It seems 20-year-olds have a sense of humor," Johnson said.

The academy has told cadets to use taste and caution in what they post. The goal, Johnson said, is to have a climate of respect.

"We're not going to try to legislate everything they do," Johnson said. "We want them to develop the judgment to balance their beliefs against their responsibilities."

And whiteboards, regardless of the message, will be handled on a case-by-case basis, she said.

Register to the Colorado Springs Gazette
Incognito Mode Your browser is in Incognito mode

You vanished!

We welcome you to read all of our stories by signing into your account. If you don't have a subscription, please subscribe today for daily award winning journalism.

Register to the Colorado Springs Gazette
Register to the Colorado Springs Gazette
Subscribe to the Colorado Springs Gazette

It appears that you value local journalism. Thank you.

Subscribe today for unlimited digital access with 50% fewer ads for a faster browsing experience.

Already a Subscriber? LOGIN HERE

Subscribe to the Colorado Springs Gazette

It appears that you value local journalism. Thank you.

Subscribe today for unlimited digital access with 50% fewer ads for a faster browsing experience.

Subscribe to the Colorado Springs Gazette

Some news is free.
Exceptional journalism takes time, effort and your support.

Already a Subscriber? LOGIN HERE

articles remaining
Thank you for your interest in local journalism.
Gain unlimited access, 50% fewer ads and a faster browsing experience.