Sensitivity rates high on the list of contemporary American virtues, right up there with “diversity,” “economic justice” and “bilateralism” in international affairs. And by that measure, the U.S. Air Force Academy is about to become a more sensitive, and thus more virtuous place than in recent years, when the shadow of religious intolerance allegedly fell over the campus.
A directive issued Monday should help lift that long shadow by instilling in cadets and staff a greater awareness of where the line is between free speech and religious indoctrination and coercion. The new rules attempt to strike a balance between the need to maintain a discrimination-free environment and protect First Amendment rights of free speech and expression. Whether they succeed depends on how pervasive one feels the problem was. We didn’t think a sledgehammer was the right tool for this particular job.
We take seriously the complaints of those who perceived a pro-Christian bias at the school. There’s no question academy officials engaged in a few actions that might create that impression. But we don’t think the appropriate response is to purge all religious influence from the institution, or to create a climate of intolerance toward Christianity. That would be an overreaction.
Officers and personnel “will not officially endorse or establish religion, either one specific religion, or the idea of religion over nonreligion,” according to the directive, which extends beyond the school to the Air Force at large. And no “abuse or disrespect” based on a person’s faith will be tolerated.
Public prayers will be discouraged, except on occasions when a “brief nonsectarian prayer” is needed to signal a “heightened sense of seriousness,” or under “extraordinary circumstances” — a term left undefined. Is prayer permitted when a Falcon bowl bid hangs in the balance, or when the team is squaring off against Notre Dame, just to even the odds? Is prayer in order before a cadet’s first solo flight? The directive doesn’t say.
That is loophole language critics will jump on to claim the new directive is flawed. But it would be unreasonable and unworkable, not to mention unconstitutional, to hand down some blanket ban on prayer. Interpersonal discussions of religion will not be barred, quite sensibly. That would clearly be unconstitutional. But commanders must make reasonable efforts to accommodate religious practices while avoiding the appearance of favoring any.
Mikey Weinstein, who turned himself into a minor celebrity by finding fault with his alma mater, says the new rules are inadequate and is threatening to sue. “These guidelines do nothing more than contribute to what appears to be an imperious, fascistic contagion that is sweeping throughout this country through evangelical Christians trying to infuse their religious thought into the machinery of the state,” Weinstein said. Imperious fascistic contagion? It seems that religious intolerance isn’t a problem confined to the academy.
Falcon football coach Fisher DeBerry might have doubts about whether the new rules apply in his locker room — but why wouldn’t they? Athletic facilities also are part of the academy, as is the coaching staff. And if DeBerry can’t abide by the rules he should coach at a private school or in the pro league.
We think reasonable people will find the guidelines a measured response to the situation. On balance, the new rules seek to reinforce the message that a publicly funded institution must carefully guard against the appearance it is promoting religion, or discriminating between them. The vast majority of cadets and instructors understand and respect these ground rules and don’t require a reminder. But it never hurts to underscore this message for the hard cases, who will now lack the excuse that the policy was less than explicit.
We hope this finally allows the academy to put the distractions aside and focus on the main mission, which is about national security, not sensitivity training.