FORT WORTH, Texas (Christian Examiner) – When players with the U.S. Air Force Academy's Fighting Falcons football team take the field for the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas, they will be free to take a knee and pray before the game, the Air Force Academy has ruled after an internal investigation prompted by a complaint from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
Earlier in December, MRFF President Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy alumnus and former military lawyer, called the practice of cadets assuming a posture of prayer on one knee a "disgrace" and a "putrid example of fundamentalist Christian supremacy, triumphalism and exceptionalism."
On Wednesday, Dec. 23, the Air Force Academy issued a statement that said the academy places "a high value on the rights of its members to observe the tenets of their respective religion or to observe no religion at all."
"Recently the United States Air Force Academy received a complaint about its football players kneeling in prayer. An inquiry was initiated, which found the football player's actions to be consistent with Air Force Instruction 1-1 and its guidance on the free exercise of religion and religious accommodation. The United States Air Force Academy will continue to reaffirm to cadets that all Airmen are free to practice the religion of their choice or subscribe to no religious belief at all. The players may confidently practice their own beliefs without pressure to participate in the practices of others."
Weinstein, however, rejects the official Department of Defense agency's interpretation of its own military regulations. In a statement Dec. 28, Weinstein said the academy's "internal review of this matter is a pathetic sham and transparent farce of the highest order."
"Let us not forget that it was hardly a respected, deconflicted and disinterested third party entity or outside agency that inquired into MRFF's charges against the Academy of unlawful, orchestrated, Christian-sectarian team praying by its football players," Weinstein said.
He added that an internal review – in which the Air Force Academy was allowed to "investigate itself" – was the equivalent of allowing Pol Pot to investigate the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge killing fields or Bernie Madoff to investigate Ponzi schemes.
On Dec. 28, Liberty Institute attorney Mike Berry, himself a former active-duty U.S. Marine Corps JAG officer, wrote in an editorial that "anti-religion activist" Weinstein is once again wrong about how military servicemen and women may exercise their religious beliefs, or lack thereof.
"To its credit," Berry wrote, "the Air Force Academy has not resorted to the sort of knee-jerk response Weinstein seeks. Instead of issuing a unilateral ban on prayer, as MRFF requested, the academy wisely referred the matter to the proper legal entities for review."
"While the academy did the right thing by taking the matter under consideration, it does not change the fact that this is the latest in a long line of MRFF's attacks on military service members of faith," Berry wrote.
Berry cited what he called the MRFF's long record of attacks on Christians in the military, such as calls to court martial chaplains for conducting Christian activities and Christian officers for speaking the name of Jesus while in uniform – the equivalent of "spiritual rape," or forcing their religious views on subordinates. He claimed such attacks are wrong and without support historically and legally.
"Since before the founding of our nation, our military commanders have gone to great lengths to ensure that our service members are able to practice their faith freely, without fear of reprisal or harassment. Similarly, federal courts have repeatedly emphasized that service members do not forfeit their religious freedom upon joining the military. And Congress recently enacted several important laws that protect religious freedom in the military. Those laws are now reflected in military regulations," Berry wrote.
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Lamborn said removing the right for the players to pray voluntarily before a game would be a "deeply disturbing and un-American precedent to set."
"Instead of condemning a peaceful action taken by 95 percent of a particular group, people should focus their energies on the real problems facing our nation. And let us resolve in this new year to relegate the attention seekers and their exaggerated problems to the sideline where they belong," Lamborn wrote.
On Dec. 28, MRFF published a cartoon showing Air Force Academy cadets kneeling on prayer rugs while facing east. The cartoon was complete with the caption, "A little prayer before the game." MRFF said the cartoon was intended to pose the question of whether the prayer would be allowed if it was conducted by Muslim cadets.