Is Air Force Losing Its Religion?

Members question top officials about reports that an academy cadet had to remove a Bible quote from a whiteboard.

National Journal
March 14, 2014, 11:07 a.m.

Des­pite an on­go­ing fight about re­tir­ing the A-10 and in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to cheat­ing scan­dals, per­haps the most con­ten­tious mo­ment of a House com­mit­tee hear­ing on the Air Force budget on Fri­day fo­cused on re­li­gious free­dom.

Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Randy For­bes of Vir­gin­ia, who is in the run­ning to be the next Armed Ser­vices chair­man, asked about re­ports from earli­er this week that a ca­det at the Air Force Academy was forced to take a Bible quote down from a white­board.

“Per­haps the most of­fens­ive, the Air Force said this was a teach­ing mo­ment, that the ca­det’s ac­tion of put­ting the Bible verse on [the white­board] was in­ap­pro­pri­ate based on lead­er­ship prin­ciples,” For­bes said, adding that he was go­ing off of in­form­a­tion he re­ceived from the Air Force.

For­bes said he was told the ca­det “had no in­ten­tion to of­fend any­one or any group” and that the boards had been used in the past to dis­play in­spir­a­tion­al quotes. For­bes com­pared put­ting the Bible quote up to law­makers hanging an “In God We Trust” sign in their of­fices.

Air Force Sec­ret­ary De­borah Lee James said she was told by Lt. Gen. Michelle John­son, the su­per­in­tend­ent of the academy, that the ca­det was told by a class­mate that the Bible quote made them un­com­fort­able, and the ca­det offered to take it down.

But For­bes dis­puted that ac­count.

“No, ma­dame sec­ret­ary, that’s not true, by your own facts. If you’ll read what your li­ais­on of­ficer has giv­en to me, “¦ the Air Force com­mand­er “¦ went to that ca­det,” For­bes said. “… Can you ima­gine a young ca­det when he’s forced with the en­tire chain of com­mand com­ing in there and telling him ba­sic­ally this is in­ap­pro­pri­ate?”

But Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force’s chief of staff, pushed back, say­ing, “We re­move hun­dreds of quotes from those boards, be­cause they’re not in their room, they’re in the hall­way. They’re used for both per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al mes­saging, just to make sure we all un­der­stand that con­text.”

Welsh stressed that the facts of what happened are still be­ing es­tab­lished.

But a hand­ful of Re­pub­lic­an com­mit­tee mem­bers backed For­bes and voiced their con­cerns over the re­ports.

GOP Rep. Mi­chael Con­away of Texas said he is wor­ried that “we have in­di­vidu­als who are so in­sec­ure and un­sure of them­selves that they can’t co­ex­ist with a free ex­pres­sion “¦ of tra­di­tion­al re­li­gious views.”¦ I won­der if they are the right folks for that busi­ness.”

And Re­pub­lic­an Rep. John Flem­ing of Louisi­ana cited an art­icle by Fox News’ Todd Star­nes over al­leg­a­tions that Gideons In­ter­na­tion­al, a Chris­ti­an or­gan­iz­a­tion, was not al­lowed to hand out Bibles at an Air Force base.

“You have to get the facts right on every one of these cases. And try and stay un­emo­tion­al un­til you know what happened,” Welsh said. “I would not be­lieve an art­icle by Mr. Star­nes, for starters.”¦ I know there are cases when he has not had his facts right in art­icles. I would be happy to ex­plain them to you, with him in the room.”

Welsh ad­ded that the “single biggest frus­tra­tion” of his job is “the per­cep­tion that some­how there is re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion in­side the Air Force. It is not true.”

Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Rob Bish­op of Utah ad­ded a light­hearted mo­ment to the spir­ited back-and-forths, ask­ing: “If I’m of­fen­ded by your budget, will you take it down?”

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