Academy conflict unlikely to end quickly or easily

Freedom Newspapers

Two new developments in the clash over religious expression at the Air Force Academy probably bear mentioning. Neither suggests the controversy will be ending anytime soon.

The Senate last week approved, by a 99-0 vote, a measure that will leave decisions regarding the appropriateness of voluntary, nondenominational prayers at school functions to the discretion of school administrators. The bill’s authors say they hope the measure will bring clarity to a recent policy directive issued by the Air Force, now being challenged in court. They worry the school may be moving in the direction of religious intolerance, in response to accusations of undue influence of evangelical Christians at the school.

“Micromanaging from Washington when prayer can and can’t be offered at academy events is a surefire way to increase religious intolerance and deny our cadets at the service academies the opportunity to express their faith,” Sen. Wayne Allard said, which makes sense. But at this point, we’re not sure anything will succeed in clarifying a situation made even more murky by an ongoing legal challenge to the policy.

The lopsided nature of the vote suggests one of two things: Either the measure is so compelling and commonsensical that no senator could quibble with it, or it’s a vague, toothless and largely symbolic gesture that probably won’t put the matter to rest. Our guess is that the latter is true, unfortunately.

Former cadet Mikey Weinstein’s legal challenge to the Air Force’s religious expression guidelines was itself challenged last week, as several parties, under the rubric of the Alliance Defense Fund, joined the fray, vowing to protect the free speech rights of AFA staff and cadets. According to published reports, the group “claims it has a right to be heard in the suit because Weinstein’s attempts to assert the First Amendment’s prohibition of government sponsored religion conflict with the free-speech rights their clients are granted by the same constitutional amendment. An alliance attorney said the new policy is “outrageously broad in that it seeks to silence the religious speech of all Air Force members.” Among those the group represents is Maj. James Glass, an academy chaplain. “Every time I speak about my faith, I would be worried about violating this rule,” he said in court papers.

This case seems to have U.S. Supreme Court written all over it. So settle in for a long and drawn-out battle.

If nothing else comes of it, the lawyers won’t starve.