UPDATED 12:00 (Central time) - After speaking with cadets and officials at the U.S. Air Force Academy, an attorney with Liberty Institute says new details surrounding what appeared to be an act of religious hostility may actually reflect confusion about the campus policy on religious speech.
The controversy surrounds the removal of a Bible verse an Air Force Academy cadet had posted outside his room (see original story below). Initially the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Mikey Weinstein, took credit for the "scrubbing" of that scripture (Galatians 2:20). But Mike Berry, director of military affairs for Liberty Institute, tells OneNewsNow that the Bible verse wasn't removed because of Weinstein's complaints.
Berry spoke with a number of cadets and the top judge advocate general (JAG) at the Academy on Thursday. "Contrary to what Weinstein said, the cadet removed it voluntarily after some of his fellow cadets discussed with him whether or not it was appropriate to have it there," the attorney explains. "So because of this incident now there is – in their words – 'mass confusion amongst the cadets.' They no longer know what the policy is."
The Liberty Institute spokesman admits being disturbed by the fact that the Air Force doesn't equate the free exercise of religion with religious speech; but that religious speech, spoken or written, can be controlled.
"I think that really gets to the heart of the issue here, which is that that's a stripping away of religious freedom," states Berry. "I mean, these are service members [who] in a very short time [are] going to be called to sacrifice on behalf of our country – so not only is it legally wrong, it's morally wrong as well."
Berry says the USAFA's religious speech policy cannot be challenged until a cadet comes forward and claims his or her religious writes are being trampled by the Air Force Academy.
As for Weinstein's involvement, Liberty Institute says "it seems as if this controversy may have been instigated, escalated, and possibly embellished" by Weinstein.
Outrage is building after the public learned that the U.S. Air Force Academy scrubbed a Bible verse from a whiteboard outside a cadet's room.
The cadet wrote: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." (Gal. 2:20)
Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation raised the roof, claiming other cadets and faculty were offended by the scripture. Weinstein subsequently boasted the Bible verse was erased from the whiteboard "exactly two hours and nine minutes" after his phone call to the Academy.
Liberty Institute has condemned the action by the Academy and requested an emergency meeting with Academy officials to discuss what it describes as "a blatant violation of the Constitution, military code, and recently issued Department of Defense rules which protect private religious speech of members of the military."
Meanwhile, the USAFA says the cadet will not be punished because he committed no policy violation.
Travis Weber is director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council. "The fact that they're having these verses removed yet not punishing the student and cannot find a policy that this student has violated really puts them in a spot where they're going to have egg on their face, if they don't already," he offers.
Weber says Air Force officials clearly don't know how to handle this kind of situation.
"The Air Force Academy [or] the officials there who are making these decisions don't really know upon what basis they're making them," he explains, "and they're responding to intimidating tactics from whoever would call in and threaten to remove verses."
Rather than complaining about the original verse, other cadets are showing solidarity in their support for their fellow cadet by posting their own verses from the Bible and the Koran on their whiteboards.
A coalition of groups that includes both Liberty Institute and the Family Research Council has announced it stands ready to represent any cadet brought up on charges for posting verses on whiteboards outside their rooms.
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