Imagine a perversion of the First Amendment that misinterprets “Religious Freedom” as the granting of blank checks to government agents and officials for the purpose of making exhibitionist stunts out of their own personal religious convictions, transforming civil or military service into a taxpayer-funded missionary vocation. This deliberate “misinterpretation” seems to be the key error underlying the uproarious hue, shrill cries, and misdirected criticisms answering church-state separation concerns stemming from U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) football players’ pre-game, Christian mass prayer demonstrations.
Some extreme voices have claimed that these completely valid criticisms emanate from “hostility to God”, “atheism”, “anti-Christianity” or some other pejorative nonsense. These condemnations couldn’t be further from the truth. I would instead submit that our denunciations of the USAFA Falcons’ prayer ceremonies are wholly legitimate and firmly rooted in the bedrock Constitutional interpretation of the secular business of governance in the United States. Construing federal and state case law as well as relevant Department of Defense directives, instructions, and regulations universally and incontrovertibly reinforce our stance.
The No Establishment Clause of the First Amendment constitutes a vital barrier to the establishment of a state or national religion; for over 200 years, the Clause has shielded our nation from rule by religious majoritarian demagogues. It can be violated in multiple ways, including acts by government agents that 1) don’t serve secular purposes, 2) inhibit or advance religion, or 3) foster an excessive entanglement with religion. I refer the reader to the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). Additionally, Mellen v. Bunting, 327 F.3d 355 (4th Cir. 2003) specifically maintains that military institutions like USAFA are bound by the requirements of the No Establishment Clause.
The groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court case Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000) ruled that granting permission to similar student-led, student-initiated mass prayer sessions at high school football games was a violation of the same No Establishment Clause.
If the above isn’t sufficient, Parker v. Levy, 417 U.S. 733, 758-759 (1974) further buttresses our argument: “While military personnel are not excluded from First Amendment protection, the fundamental necessity for obedience, and the consequent necessity for discipline, may render permissible within the military that which would be constitutionally impermissible outside.”
Taking these precedents into account, one can see that the USAFA “Team Tebow” football prayers constitute a clear repudiation of, and defiance towards, the foundational law of the land.
Similarly, USAFA cadets are required to abide by USAF Instruction 1-1, Section 2.12 which clearly states that “Leaders at all levels…must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief, or absence of belief.”
Americans have long become accustomed to the cynical use of the “religious liberty” banner as a means towards disguising the theocratic aspirations of right-wing Evangelical Fundamentalist Christians. Let’s not forget how religious liberty and gay rights are still considered, by many, to be simply irreconcilable. The same tension between so-called religious “liberty” is still often asserted in relation to women’s rights, the rights of ethnic minorities, and the civil rights of non-Christians. In the past, religious liberty was the favored cudgel used against the “wrong kinds” of Christians – Catholics, for example.
It is absolutely undeniable that a certain, virulent strain of fundamentalist Christian supremacy, triumphalism, and exceptionalism continues to thrive in the United States. I am reminded of this fact every time that I open my e-mail inbox and find dozens upon dozens of hateful threats from self-proclaimed “Christian” sorts who wish grotesquely described death and disease on my family, myself and the staffers at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
It’s not up to me to forgive them, even though it’s patently clear that they know not what they do or what they speak of. I am only human, as are the 144 USAFA cadet, faculty and staff clients of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation on this particular football player mass praying matter, including 5 Falcon football players (4 of them Christians and the other one “pretends” to be a Christian).
No, all we can do is confidently assert, on behalf of our USAFA clients, their hard-fought rights, which are granted to all Americans in relation to the mandates of the United States Constitution.