Religious freedom and the First Amendment have been a source of conflict at the academy in recent years. In 2011, administrators issued an apology for an email regarding the Operation Christmas Child outreach of Samaritan's Purse to send holiday gifts to impoverished children around the world.
Most recently, in March of this year, a cadet leader voluntarily removed a Bible verse from the whiteboard on his dorm room door after someone complained to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson. The verse, Galatians 2:20 reads, "I have been crucified with Christ therefore I no longer live, but Christ lives in me."
The petition, delivered June 25, directly relates to the Bible verse controversy. It voices concern about a culture of fear produced by eradicating religion. "If cadets are taught to be afraid of Bible verses, how will they respond against terrorists who are willing to die for their cause?" the petition asks.
Mikey Weinstein, who leads an organization devoted to limiting religion in the military, had argued that the presence of the Bible verse "pours fundamentalist Christian gasoline" on an Air Force Academy religious culture he believes is "raging out of control."
But Lt. Gen. (Rt.) Jerry Boykin, the Family Research Council's executive vice president, has urged that religious problems at the Air Force Academy be sorted out in a way that benefits the cadets and prevents further damage.
"The academy's recent actions and policy pronouncements, unless quickly corrected, will continue to chill speech among cadets, harm morale and create unnecessary confusion," Boykin said.
Members of Congress have not remained silent on the issue. Rep. John Fleming, R-La., praised the petition.
"We need this kind of resounding effort by the American people echoing that message to the Air Force," Fleming said. "I believe we will make progress on this issue, and the efforts of citizens speaking out are playing a leading role in that fight."
Travis Weber, director of the Family Research Council's Center for Religious Liberty, said the petition speaks for many people in the military worried about their First Amendment rights.
"To remove a Bible verse from that whiteboard that the cadet would want to put on there is something that is seriously concerning," Weber said.
Boykin said the petition shows that people outside the military support the ability of soldiers to freely express their religion while in uniform. With more than 100,000 signatures, the American people "have spoken out loudly against such efforts to suppress speech and belief," he said.
Used by permission from WORLD News Service, a division of WORLD Magazine (www.worldmag.com).
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