Meanwhile, back at the Air Force Academy

v4n2 03jOK, so everyone remembers where GetReligion stands on the Air Force Academy story, right? We back free speech. Chaplains do not have to edit their own faith, especially in meetings that students choose to attend. Religious groups have the same rights as secular groups, when it comes to using emails, posters, public announcements and all of that.

Religious believers have a right to discuss their faith with others. The nonbelievers have a right to tell them to shut up. If believers keep at it, you throw the book at them. Right?

This brings us to the latest Alan Cooperman report in The Washington Post, in which the anti-proselytizing police have latched onto a fundraising letter from the well-known — at least to most people who know any evangelical Protestants at all — prayer and evangelism group called The Navigators.

It seems that this Colorado Springs-based organization is training cadets how to share their faith. Shocking. It also seems that the group has an office on the grounds of the Air Force Academy. This is something like learning that the Mormons have classes to teach people foreign languages and how to remove stains from white shirts.

In Cooperman’s breathless report the scandal of it all sounds something like this:

A private missionary group has assigned a pair of full-time Christian ministers to the U.S. Air Force Academy, where they are training cadets to evangelize among their peers, according to a confidential letter to supporters.

The letter makes clear that the organized evangelization effort has continued this year despite an outcry over alleged proselytizing at the academy that has prompted a Pentagon investigation, congressional hearings, a civil lawsuit and new Air Force guidelines on religion.

“Praise God that we have been allowed access by the Academy into the cadet areas to minister among the cadets. We have recently been given an unused classroom to meet with cadets at any time during the day,” the husband-and-wife team of Darren and Gina Lindblom said in the Oct. 11 letter to their donors.

This raises some questions, of course. But here is the big one: The Navigators, and many other religious groups, do this kind of work on campuses — state and private — all over the place. Under equal access laws, prayer groups and Bible studies are even held on public-school campuses, to the same degree as each school allows other student groups to use these facilities. The state is, in other words, not allowed to practice viewpoint discrimination.

So the question Cooperman needs to ask, concerning this Navigators rampage, is this: Are there any other student groups at the academy? Do they meet to discuss things like the environment, Islam, Jane Austen, NASCAR, skiing or other subjects of interest? Have other groups — religious or secular — been denied a similar use of facilities? Are the meetings voluntary?

If The Navigators have a unique arrangement, in comparison with secular student groups, then this is a scandal. If not, then repeat after me: “View-point dis-crim-i-na-tion.”

And by the way: When does The Washington Post plan to begin quoting church-state experts on the right as well as the left, to seek some kind of balance in its coverage on this issue?

What am I talking about? There are folks on the church-state left who could ask and answer the relevant questions in this case.

If The Navigators have claimed turf that other secular and religious groups have been denied, then book ’em. Otherwise, this is another case in which the answer to free speech is more free speech. The answer to freedom of association is freedom of association. Equal access is equal access.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    The question isn’t whether they permit secular groups, the question is whether they allow outside groups to have access to space and whether those outside groups are treated equally. Allowing Mr. and Mrs. Lindblom access to AFA students is the larger question.

    Ultimately, this may be all for naught. Military academies are not like other public schools. When you sign up for Uncle Sam’s military, your First Amendment rights are signed away and the schools are free to limit the groups who have space on their campuses and they are free to censor the speech of their students and staff. If AFA cadets are unhappy with that arrangement, they are free to forego their free education on Uncle Sam’s dime and attend a campus where the Navigators are recognized.

  • Jacob

    I might add that there is particular danger in allowing any kind of establishment of religion in military situations.

    As a university instructor at a state university, I couldn’t give orders to students as the authorities at a military school could. So, we have to be extra careful in these cases.

    On that note, however, it is important to note that things have shifted. Earlier, I thought this was about superiors and subordinates. Now, it looks like the issue may be about peers. If so, then that makes a big difference.

  • pdb

    Can we put to risk this myth that cadets and midshipmen get a free education? In return for going to school on the government’s dime, they must serve five to 10 years in the military, often at risk of serious bodily harm and for salaries that are several times below what most of them could make in the private sector. That goes for students on ROTC scholarships as well. It doesn’t go for other students at public colleges and universities, who presumably are benefitting from government funding as well. That said, cadets and midshipmen are big boys and girls, who have shown themselves perfectly capable of resisting the wiles of the Lindbloms and their kind over the years. If resistance to booze were so easy, the academies could deal with their real problems: sexual harrassment and accidental deaths.

  • Basilides

    What a slow news day it must have been for this Washington Post journalist to waste his time on this article. Someone should remind him that whatever rules the Air Force Academy decides are best to follow in this situation are not the same rules that non-governmental agencies must follow.

  • Michael

    I don’t know, I actually think it’s a great story. DC, in many ways, is a military town and therefore a story about the military academies is a good story for the WP (especially with the Naval Academy in its readership area). Combined with the reporter’s source–a litigant against the Academy–and you have a great story. The added intrigue of the Navigators wanting to keep their deal secret makes it all the more interesting, especially in light of the recent reports on evangelizing at the Academy.

  • ken masugi

    Having taught three years at USAFA (1996-99), I think I can bring some otherwise unreported facts to this episode. BTW, I’ve found Cooperman to be a good reporter on other issues, though I did email him, noting his omissions. In brief: the Evangelicals were pushing back from what they took as belittling and discrimination on the part of the Administration and their fellow cadets. The MSM caught the pushback but not the cause of it, thus creating a false image of Academy life. Here is one blog of mine on this issue, one of several on USAFA scandals. I quote extensively from a former student and USAFA grad, who feels he and his fellow Evangelicals have suffered discrimination.