Updated: January 31, 2011 at 12:00 am
Five Air Force Academy faculty — two civilians and three military — and a religious rights group sued the school’s superintendent on Monday to stop the school’s National Prayer Luncheon scheduled for Feb. 10.
The 10-page lawsuit accuses Lt. Gen. Michael Gould of “endorsing and promoting” religion in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The suit asks a federal judge in Denver to issue an injunction to prevent the luncheon and its keynote speaker, retired Marine 1st. Lt. Clebe McClary, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, author and devoted Christian.
“This is an official event sponsored, sanctioned and organized by the command chain at the Air Force Academy,” said David A. Lane, the Denver attorney representing the five faculty and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, founded by academy graduate Mikey Weinstein, a frequent critic of religious activities at the school.
“It is a clear violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, which mandates the separation of church and state,” Lane said. “The command chain is sponsoring a religious event, promoting it and endorsing it. That’s the issue.”
The academy defended the luncheon Monday, describing it as a traditional event held in coordination with the National Prayer Breakfast, which occurs on the first Thursday of February each year in Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama spoke to the gathering in 2010 and typically it attracts U.S. Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, Cabinet officials and presidents.
“This is something we’ve held at the academy for years and years,” said Lt. Col. John Bryan, academy spokesman. “This is a multifaith prayer luncheon. Similar events are held every year at every military installation around the country. It’s not new.”
But Lane said his clients believe the luncheon is more evidence that Gould and his top officers have created a “climate of coercion and fear at the Air Force Academy” by “foisting religion upon students, faculty and staff.”
Only one of the five faculty was identified in the suit: R. David Mullin, a 13-year academy economic professor.
The others remained anonymous, described only as a civilian professor with 10 years at the academy; a commissioned Air Force officer and academy graduate assigned to the academics department; an active duty military employee; and a commissioned officer on the academic faculty.
“Each plaintiff fears that any dissent from the ‘party line’ will result in serious negative consequences for them in their careers in the Air Force,” the lawsuit said. “They fear retribution from the command structure if their identities are revealed.”
Bryan said the luncheon is not a mandatory event.
“It’s completely voluntary,” Bryan said. “I don’t know how they could feel forced to go to this. No roll call is being taken.”
The academy said the event is designed to “bring together the leadership of the United States in recognition of the spiritual values upon with our nation is founded.”
The event will include readings by airmen who are Islamic, Jewish, and Christian, as well as from a rabbi, Buddhist sensei and a Catholic priest.
Perhaps most controversial is the keynote address planned by motivational speaker McClary.
On his web site, he says he now serves in the “Lord’s army” and to him the initials USMC no longer stand for U.S. Marine Corps. Instead, they mean “US Marines for Christ.”
Lane said it didn’t matter that the event recognizes many religious points of view. Clearly, McClary is the dominant viewpoint.
“By having a keynote speaker who identifies as a fundamentalist Christian and using the event as an opportunity to promote the sale of his book, clearly promotes Christianity over all other religions,” the lawsuit contends.
Bryan said the academy is proceeding with plans for the luncheon, although it will abide by the decision of the court.
Lane said he hopes to have a hearing by Friday in federal court.