OUR VIEW: The rights of Christians and AFA cadets

January 29, 2010
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Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, will speak at the Air Force Acacemy Feb. 19 to tell cadets this: “Your personal Christian rights do not supersede the constitutional rights of others.”

It would be nice to think young adults — the kind smart enough to earn admission to one of the country’s top academic institutions — would already know as much. Some, undoubtedly, do not. Fortunately, few cadets have the authority to violate the constitutional rights of others. They have the ability to offend, but that’s different from the ability to violate either the establishment or free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Generally, with exceptions, that requires authority.

New Air Force Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould has great authority, and therefore easy ability to violate religious freedom. He promised the Gazette’s editorial board last spring he would make religious freedom and tolerance a priority on campus, after years of controversy regarding bad behavior by a few Christians. He also promised these efforts would not become a policy of bash-the-Christians-because-majorities-are-so-not-cool.

When Gould emerged as a likely choice to lead the academy, Weinstein’s foundation balked because Gould is a devout Christian. Gould met with foundation founder Weinstein, a 1977 academy graduate who believes his alma mater and other parts of the military engage in establishment of Christianity in violation of the First Amendment.

Gould listened intently to Weinstein and his concerns about institutionalized proselytizing at the Academy. His respect for Weinstein was obvious.

Weinstein and his organization often have legitimate gripes. Thankfully, they are challenging the military for buying Marine rifles with references to New Testament Bible verses on the scopes. The verses are positive, and they cause good in the world. The difference between Afghanistan and the United States, however, is the fact our military isn’t charged with a religious crusade. Our military fights not for religion, but for religious freedom.

Gen. Gould fully understands the difference between religion and religious freedom, and he knows we have no freedom when an institution of government imposes or validates religious beliefs. Gould’s invitation to Weinstein, to speak to cadets, reflects the general’s respect for religious freedom and his confidence in the stability of a free marketplace of ideas.

Speaking about the invitation, to Gazette reporter Lance Benzel, Weinstein said: “It’s like inviting Godzilla to a backyard barbecue.”

He was joking, of course. But in all good humor is a kernel of truth. Weinstein and his organization have done excellent work, and they are correct to remain vigilant against institutionalized proselytizing and abuse of religious rights. But they have also been quick in the past to harm their cause by appearing to oppose individuals simply because they profess Christian faith. The foundation, for example, has objected to academy lectures that involved invited speakers who’ve professed Christianity or criticized other religions. That’s unfortunate. Just as the academy should not endorse a particular religion, it should not forbid or denounce individual religious expression.

A small fraction of Christians, in their majority status, have often come across as overbearing, pompous, and even malicious to people of minority faiths. The reaction to such behavior, however, has sometimes caused others to treat all of Christianity as if it’s a crime. Intolerance and prejudice are not constructive reactions to intolerance and prejudice.

It’s not a crime to belong to a majority. Likewise, minority status is not inherently virtuous. In a context of individual religious expression, the only virtue is freedom.

Weinstein is correct to tell Christian students their personal religious freedoms do not supersede the constitutional rights of others. He should be sure to remind them, however, that bad behavior by some of their peers has done nothing to diminish their First Amendment rights — just as murderous behavior by Islamic terrorists should not diminish the religious rights of other Muslims. Religious freedom favors all religions, the large and small alike. — Wayne Laugesen, editorial page editor, for the editorial board

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