Suit against Air Force Academy dismissed

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A federal judge yesterday threw out a lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force that contended evangelical Christian values were illegally pushed on Air Force Academy cadets.

U.S. District Judge James A. Parker said the academy graduates who filed suit could not claim their First Amendment rights were violated because they no longer attended the academy.

Moreover, the judge in Albuquerque, N.M., said the group failed to give specific examples of which cadets were harmed or when.

“Without that personal link or connection to future misconduct, plaintiffs have simply not shown that they will suffer an injury in fact that is both concrete and particularized and actual or imminent,” Judge Parker wrote.

The case was brought by honors graduate Mikey Weinstein and other Air Force Academy graduates who said a military chaplain violated their religious freedom rights by urging cadets to attend Christian services or face being burned “in the fires of hell.” That incident reflected a broader policy, the group charged, of efforts to evangelize Air Force staff.

Mr. Weinstein said he would appeal the decision.

“Our fight is far from over,” said the Albuquerque resident.

Last year, an Air Force task force concluded there was no overt religious discrimination at the school but that some cadets and staff were insensitive. And in a step welcomed by conservative Christians, the Air Force in February released new guidelines for religious expression that dropped cautions to top officers about promoting their personal religious views.

The judge also rejected claims by Air Force Master Sgt. Phillip T. Burleigh, who asked to be included in the lawsuit, saying he was discriminated against in 1997 for not attending prayer meetings. Sgt. Burleigh, of Alamogordo, N.M., also said his supervisor used government resources to evangelize recruits, including hiring religious motivational speakers to lecture at mandatory-attendance conferences.

Judge Parker called Sgt. Burleigh’s concerns “simply conjectural and hypothetical in nature.”

Mr. Weinstein and a religious freedoms watchdog group in Washington said the ruling delays efforts to protect the rights of people serving in the military.

“Religious bias and the outrageous violations of the separation of church and state continue to spread rampantly throughout our military,” Mr. Weinstein said.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the case revealed “very serious, systematic violations of the Constitution at the Air Force Academy.”

“This is clearly not the end of the story,” Mr. Lynn said. “Chaplains and officers are there to meet spiritual needs, and not to convert people to Christianity.”

An Air Force Academy spokeswoman declined comment, referring calls to the Pentagon. An Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon said he was not aware of the decision, thus did not have an immediate comment.

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