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GUEST COLUMN: Misunderstanding religious freedom

April 4, 2017 Updated: April 6, 2017 at 4:05 pm
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As a member of the Cadet Chapel staff at the United States Air Force Academy last summer, I recall the vibrant sky and mountains viewed through the hues of blues and orange stained glass of the chapel. as well as the mundane fact that we had to strategically position buckets to catch rain water. Yes, USAFA's iconic chapel has holes in the roof. This week it was announced that it will be shut down for up to four years after long overdue repairs get underway.

A recent column in Colorado Spring's Gazette notes the chapel is Colorado's top man-made tourist attraction, drawing nearly half a million visitors a year.

The column is excellent and innocuous until it begins to reference the chapel and its religious function. The Gazette's senior military editor Tom Roeder writes:

"Religion is a big deal at the academy and other military bases but not for the reasons one might suspect. The services are barred from evangelism, and promotion of faith is restricted, but the academy like the rest of the military must care for the religious needs of troops under federal law."

The column makes a common, albeit subtle, mistake when it comes to understanding religious freedom. The religious services at the academy and the chaplains who serve those religious rites are not barred from evangelism. Chaplains serving cadets in this capacity are not restricted from promoting their faith. In fact, they would be erring in their duty if they were not acting in accordance with their religious endorsers. Air Force Instruction 52-101 says, "Leading Worship. Chaplains conduct worship services consistent with the tenets of their respective endorsing religious organization."

This is a mistake many Americans make when trying to understand religious freedom. This misunderstanding unnecessarily binds the hands of chaplains as far as their work and religious freedom is concerned. Tight restrictions apply in the context of a National Historic Landmark building project, but there are few restrictions when it comes to the free exercise of religion and the role of the chaplain to provide this Constitutional privilege.

There are many federal laws that promote and protect religious freedom, but at the foundation of them all lie the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The typical lines of orthodoxy are drawn with the establishment clause on one hand and the free exercise clause on the other. They are like opposite foul poles on a baseball field. Anything inside them is in fair territory.

The establishment clause keeps the government from passing laws that establish a state religion. On the other hand, the free exercise clause prohibits the government from infringing on the free exercise of religion. These two clauses are the foundation for religious freedom not only at the academy, but wherever the Constitution is applied.

The Air Force Academy itself has gotten religious liberty right recently. In December 2015, the Air Force Times reported an academy athletic department review found that football players who prayed publicly, even in uniform, were following Air Force Instruction 1-1 and in line with their First Amendment freedoms.

In the 1950s, corners were cut and the award-winning architectural landmark was exposed to decay. Thankfully, USAFA is learning from its mistakes.

The Cadet Chapel will be restored to the designer's original intent by installing a new sealing system that will finally keep the water out.

Misunderstanding the First Amendment and misapplying restrictions to chaplains (or cadets) is like cutting corners and goes against the Founders' original design, such erosion will always lead to holes in religious freedom.

Can we learn from our mistakes?


Nathan Newman is an officer in the Air Force Reserve Chaplain Corps and served on the Cadet Chapel staff

at the United States Air Force Academy last summer. In his civilian life, he is a George C. Marshall Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a member of the pastoral staff at McLean Presbyterian Church located just outside of Washington, DC.

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