The hot seat just got hotter for Air Force officials at today’s [March 14, 2014] House Armed Services hearing. With the backdrop of Scripture scrubbing and Christian harassment at the branch’s Academy, a routine budget debate turned into a fireworks display over the Air Force’s growing hostility towards faith in the ranks. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Walsh were originally scheduled to talk about branch spending until conservatives intervened, demanding a detailed explanation of the events that unfolded at the Academy. Representatives from Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) to Democrat Mike McIntyre (N.C.) took turns grilling the duo on the incident, which ultimately resulted in a cadet erasing Bible verses from his dorm whiteboard.
Congressman Randy Forbes (R-Va.) pressed the pair on “what other inspirational quotes cadets have been forced to remove from their personal whiteboards other than verses from the Bible.” Secondly, he said, “I want to point out this to you, General. When you come in my office, I chair the Sea Power Subcommittee, [and] over the door you walk through I have our national motto engraved ‘In God We Trust’…. How [is that] any different from this cadet placing his own personal message over his own personal whiteboard? And how is this offensive to leadership principles?”
Reps. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Michael Turner (R-Ohio) echoed Forbes’s concerns, urging James and Walsh to “make every effort to promote and preserve religious liberty for our service members.” For Congressman Lamborn, the incident is personal. “The Air Force Academy is in my district, and like Rep. Forbes, I’m very disturbed by what happened with this cadet. I think it’s a suppression of religious rights, and I’m going to ask you in a minute about funding cuts at the Air Force Academy — and I want to defend the academy, but my job has been, frankly, made a little bit harder because of that.”
Things got even more heated when Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) brought up today’s breaking story from Fox News that an Alabama Air Force Base had banned Gideon Bibles. Secretary James said she was “not familiar with the specifics” and reiterated the policy of balancing freedoms. Gen. Welsh explained that he and his wife ran a program called “Teens Encounter Christ” and said there were people in the Air Force that would disagree that there’s religious persecution at the Academy. He explained he would not rush to judgment, but rather dispassionately look at the facts. Gen Welsh said that he’d be happy to tell Fleming what they’ve been doing on this issue and said, the “single biggest frustration I’ve had in this job is the perception that somehow there is religious persecution in the United States Air Force. It is not true,” he insisted. “We have incidents like everybody, [and] we investigate every one of them. We’ve asked every chaplain in our Air Force if they know of these cases, [and] they say no… There’s a perception here that we’re in a battle between two sets of advocacy groups.” Congressman Fleming asked if the General if he was familiar with FRC’s “Clear and Present Danger” publication. Gen. Welsh said he was.
The problems, Fleming said, are getting worse — not better. Hopefully, with the help of these Members of Congress demanding answers, that’s about to change. Join them in speaking up for the Air Force’s cadets by signing our petition here!
Tony Perkins heads the Family Research Council. This article is excerpted from the Washington Update that he compiles for the FRC.
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