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General Bentley Rayburn is Wrong Regarding Air Force Academy Cadets’ Religious Rights

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The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) would like to specifically respond to and correct some of the egregiously erroneous statements made by retired USAF Maj. General Bentley Rayburn in his April 20, 2014 Colorado Springs Gazette Op-Ed. Rayburn outrageously claimed that “government cannot restrict your free exercise of religion.” Absolutely everyone in United States government service, in military uniform or not, should clearly recognize such a statement as blatantly incorrect—though often misunderstood by many civilians.

The Department of Defense (and other Federal agencies) routinely places nontrivial restrictions on free speech as well as religious practice for the sake of maintaining optimal unit cohesion, morale, 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).

Likewise, above Rayburn’s cited paragraph 2.12 of AF Instruction 1-1, had he actually bothered to read it, one finds paragraph 2.11, which mandates that all Air Force that 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 dangerous degradation of the unit’s cohesion, morale, good order, and discipline.”

We agree that it is possible that the young male or female USAFA cadet who posted this note was affirming his or her beliefs and certainly may not have intended to be disrespectful. Notwithstanding the foregoing, one might indeed fairly ask, “Would it be reasonable to assume the following: that a C4C (freshman cadet) who reports directly to the C2C (junior), but is of a distinctly different faith tradition than his/her senior cadet leader, might presume that their leader is promoting his or her particular religious view and, moreover, could that first-year cadet perceive that those who overtly share the senior cadet leader’s views may be given preferential treatment?”  By placing this New Testament statement right next to a label declaring the cadet’s rank and standing in the open hallway of the unit, this cadet leader incontrovertibly created that exact perception in direct violation of AF Instruction 1-1, paragraph 2.11.  Ask yourself, would it be permissible, under AF Instruction 1-1, for a cadet or officer to put a political message on the whiteboard suggesting how he or she or others have voted or should vote in an election, or promoting or avowing their support of a partisan political candidate or party?  The answer is a clear “no.”  Can that same cadet have a poster or whiteboard statement within their own room (private space), though, as inspiration?  We think “yes.”

Seen in reverse, should a cadet be allowed to post a distinctly anti-religious (or racist) message on their exterior whiteboard in the name of free speech and freedom to practice their religion?  We don’t think so.  In fact, it seems that other cadets don’t think so either and displayed their own cruel intolerance when one of MRFF’s clients (after the fact) posted on their whiteboard ”There is no evidence that any God has ever existed.” Almost immediately, two physically larger cadets, both of higher rank, confronted this cadet. They yelled and shouted that the message was “anti-faith” and that it was “an insult to all people of faith” and targeted only Christians. They pushed the lower-ranking cadet and forcibly restrained the cadet from stopping them from erasing the whiteboard. The lower-ranking cadet received bruises on his/her body from the altercation. Hello? Doesn’t anyone clearly discern the profoundly deleterious impact on that Academy unit’s cohesion, morale, good order and discipline? It seems that Rayburn does not.

The MRFF abhors this violence, but sees it as the natural consequence of a military hierarchy in which everyone wears their private, non-mission-related preferences on their sleeves—an environment where only those who express beliefs as the Commander believes can expect fair treatment, where the Command environment presupposes a particular religious or political perspective as a necessary and sufficient condition for honorable service.

The United States military is a hyper-tribal, adversarial, communal and ritualistic world, which far too very few American citizens fully understand. Working for the U.S. armed forces is not at all like working for IBM, Taco Bell, or Walgreens. If individuals have never been a part of the U.S. military, it is more excusable if they do not fully understand its peculiarities. Rayburn has no such excuse. Unfortunately, having always been a part of the conservative Christian majority, and many times in positions of Command, Rayburn can’t seem to effectively walk a mile in the cadet’s, junior officer’s, or enlisted person’s shoes and understand how wretchedly debilitating it must feel to not be a part of that majority which so gleefully welcomes him (Rayburn).  He can’t even remotely imagine an armed forces unit in which, for example, he is the only Christian, and everyone else is either Jewish, or Muslim, or Atheist, or Gay, or Democrat, each with their own declarative (and judgmental) statement of their parochial, private belief or stance proudly affixed to their office door, name and rank or attached to the bottom of their every e-mail.  Rayburn fails miserably to comprehend just how universally destructive that most assuredly will be for any military organization which mightily depends upon unity and mutual respect to accomplish its critical mission.

We support the open exchange of ideas on all topics, but NOT within the hierarchical and heavily armed world of the military.  Rayburn refers to his (and my) alma mater, the U.S. Air Force Academy, as a “university”. Seriously, Bentley? It is not. In this instant debate, it is a military garrison. Having a public contest of sectarian religious ideas in the Air Force Academy’s functioning work areas, drenched in their necessary magnitudes of Command influences, is a distinctly different matter than doing so at Colorado College or other civilian institutions of higher education. When it comes to such analyses in the United States military, it’s all about three things; the time, place and manner of the religious (or no religious) expression in question.

United States military members should be free to practice their religion, or lack thereof, as they see fit in their private time and in places and manners reserved for such practice and approved by competent military authority so as not to disrupt the critical cohesion, good order, morale and discipline of the unit.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is up against well-funded extremist religious organizations. Your donations allow us to continue our fight in the courts and in the media to fight for separation of church and state in the U.S. military. Please make a fully tax-deductible donation today at helpbuildthewall.org.

Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, Esq. is founder and president of the six-time Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), an honor graduate of the Air Force Academy, and a former J.A.G. in the U.S. Air Force. He served as a White House counsel in the Reagan Administration and as the Committee Management Officer of the “Iran-Contra” Investigation. He is also the former General Counsel to H. Ross Perot and Perot Systems Corporation. His two sons, daughter-in-law, son-in law, and brother-in-law are also graduates of USAFA. In December 2012, Defense News named Mikey one of the 100 Most Influential People in U.S. Defense. He is the author of “With God On Our Side” (2006, St. Martin’s Press) and “No Snowflake in an Avalanche” (2012, Vireo).