GUEST COLUMN: Mistaken viewpoint on service academy cadets' religious rights

By: Mikey Weinstein
April 26, 2014 Updated: April 26, 2014 at 8:00 am
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The Military Religious Freedom Foundation would like to respond to and correct statements made by Maj. Gen. Bentley Rayburn (USAF, retired) in his April 20, Gazette Op-ed. The general claimed that "government cannot restrict your free exercise of religion." Everyone in government service, in uniform or not, should know that is blatantly incorrect - though often misunderstood by civilians. The Department of Defense (and other federal agencies) routinely places significant restrictions on free speech as well as religious practice for the sake of unit cohesion, good order, and discipline. The Hatch Act restricts the political activity of service members (e.g., endorsing candidates). The Army restricts accommodation of religious practices that might "have an adverse impact on unit readiness, individual readiness, unit cohesion, morale, discipline, safety, and/or health" (AR600-20).

Gen. Rayburn cited paragraph 2.12 of AF Instruction 1-1, but ignored the previous paragraph (2.11) which states that Air Force leaders "must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit's morale, good order, and discipline."

The cadet posting on that whiteboard may not have intended to be disrespectful. However, one must ask, "Could a first-year cadet who reports directly to the third-year cadet supervisor, but is of a different faith tradition than their senior cadet leader, presume their superior is promoting a particular religious view and, moreover, could that same cadet think that those who share the leader's views may be given preferential treatment?" By placing this New Testament passage next to a label declaring the cadet's rank and standing in the open hallway of the unit's operations area, the cadet created that exact perception in violation of AFI1-1. Ask yourself, "Would it be permissible for a cadet or officer to put a political message on their office entrance suggesting how they will vote in an election, or promoting a specific political candidate or party? Clearly, "no." Can that same cadet have a religious statement or political sticker on a whiteboard within their own room (private space)? We think "yes."

Likewise, we don't think leaders should display messages that degrade or disrespect those with other private views and, it seems, some cadets don't think so either. When one of MRFF's clients (after the fact) posted on their whiteboard "There is no evidence that any God has ever existed," two physically larger cadets, both of higher rank, immediately confronted the writer, yelled and shouted that the message was "anti-faith" and "an insult to all people of faith," targeting Christians. They erased the whiteboard. The profoundly negative impact on that unit's cohesion, good order, and discipline caused by this event should be obvious to all - except, it seems, General Rayburn.

The MRFF sees this as an illustrative and inevitable consequence of a military hierarchy in which everyone wears their private, non-mission-related preferences on their sleeves - where unit leadership might presuppose a particular religious or political perspective is a necessary and sufficient condition for honorable service.

Having always been a part of the conservative Christian majority, many times in command, Gen. Rayburn can't seem to walk a mile in a subordinate's shoes, understanding how it must feel to not be part of that majority that gleefully welcomed and promoted him. He probably can't imagine a unit in which he's the only Christian, and all of his superiors are Muslim, atheist, or Democrat, each with their own declarative (and judgmental) statement of their parochial, private beliefs proudly affixed to their office door or attached to the bottom of their every email. Rayburn misses completely how destructive that would be for any military organization that depends upon unity and mutual respect to accomplish victory.

We support the open exchange of ideas on all topics, but not within the hierarchical and hypertribal military. Rayburn refers to the academy (our shared alma mater) as a "university." Seriously? In this instant debate, it is a military garrison. Having a public argument of sectarian religious ideas in the academy's functioning work areas, with inherent command influence, is distinctly different than doing so at Colorado College or other civilian institutions. When it comes to such analyses in the military, it's all about three things: the time, place, and manner of the expression in question. Members should be free to practice their religion as they see fit - during private time and at times reserved for such practice and approved by competent military authority so as not to disrupt cohesion, good order, and discipline of the unit.


Weinstein is an attorney, businessman and former Air Force officer. He is the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

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