October 27, 2006
A federal judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit by a group of Air Force Academy graduates who claimed evangelical Christian officers and cadets illegally “attempted to impose” their religion on others at the military school.
U.S. District Judge James A. Parker in Albuquerque threw out the lawsuit saying it contained only vague allegations that the academy is biased in favor of evangelical Christians and improperly allowed evangelizing. Parker also ruled the group of graduates making the allegations lacked legal standing to bring the claims. The five graduates, led by Albuquerque businessman Mikey Weinstein, sued last October. Weinstein said Friday he was disappointed by Parker’s decision, which he described as dismissing the case “on a technicality.” “We will refile our lawsuit as quickly as possible,” Weinstein said in a prepared statement issued by his Military Religious Freedom Foundation. “Our fight is far from over,” Weinstein said. “Religious bias and the outrageous violations of the separation of church and state continue to spread rampantly throughout our military.” The Pentagon applauded Parker’s ruling. “We believe Academy officials performed properly and that this litigation is one important step in the direction in judicial recognition of that,” said Major General Jack Rives, Air Force Judge Advocate General, in a prepared statement. The plaintiffs claimed cadets routinely were coerced into non-secular prayers at mandatory academy events and were pressured to engage in evangelical Christian religious practices. One claim said a military chaplain violated the religious freedom of cadets by urging them to attend Christian services and to recruit others to attend, warning them that failure to attend will lead them to “burn in the fires of hell.” Parker, however, ruled the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to bring the suit because none currently attends the academy. In addition, Parker said Weinstein’s group failed to provide specific examples of harm done to any cadets. “Although plaintiffs allege that various actions occurred to cadets at the academy, plaintiffs do not name those cadets,” Parker said in his 16-page decision. Further, he said an injunction against the academy was not warranted because there is no proof illegal religious activity would occur in the future. “Without that personal link or connection to future misconduct, plaintiffs have simply not shown that they will suffer an injury in fact that is both concrete and particularized and actual or imminent,” Parker said. The group alleged academy officials favor evangelical Christians and allow faculty and staff to proselytize cadets in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on government-sanctioned religion. They said the result was a culture at the academy of discrimination and harassment of non-evangelical Christians. Parker also rejected claims by Air Force Master Sgt. Phillip Burleigh who asked to be added to the lawsuit. Burleigh claimed his refusal to attend prayer meetings in 1997 resulted in discrimination against him. Burleigh also alleged that his supervisor used government resources to evangelize recruits, including hiring religious motivational speakers in 2003 and 2005 to speak at conferences. The Rev. Barry Lynn of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State told The Associated Press the case revealed “very serious, systematic violations of the Constitution at the Air Force Academy.” “This is clearly not the end of the story,” Lynn said. “Chaplains and officers are there to meet spiritual needs, and not to convert people to Christianity.” A spokesman for the Air Force Academy referred questions to the Pentagon. Air Force spokesman Dewey Mitchell in Washington declined to comment. In June 2005, an Air Force task force concluded no overt religious discrimination existed at the academy. However, some cadets and staff were deemed insensitive to various religious beliefs. In February, the Air Force released new guidelines for religious expression that allowed chaplains to refuse orders that violate their beliefs. However, the guidelines did not include previously suggested cautions to top officers about promoting their personal religious views.