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.