- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

COLORADO SPRINGS — Score one for the Air Force Academy football players who take a Tim Tebow-style knee in a brief pregame prayer on the field.

An inquiry conducted by Air Force Academy officials concluded this week that cadets may continue their informal tradition in reaction to a complaint that plunged this military community into a heated debate over free speech and church-state separation.

“Recently the United States Air Force Academy received a complaint about its football players kneeling in prayer. An inquiry was initiated, which found the football players’ actions to be consistent with Air Force Instruction 1-1 and its guidance on the free exercise of religion and religious accommodation,” academy officials said in a statement provided Wednesday to The Washington Times.

“The United States Air Force Academy will continue to reaffirm to cadets that all Airmen are free to practice the religion of their choice or subscribe to no religious belief at all,” the statement said. “The players may confidently practice their own beliefs without pressure to participate in the practices of others.”

Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said Wednesday that his group is considering filing for a temporary injunction in federal court to stop the prayer tradition before the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas, on Tuesday when the Falcons square off against the California Golden Bears.

“This outrageous internal administrative decision to allow its football team to engage in massive orchestrated sectarian Christian prayers right before kick-off for the world to see on television is a monstrous travesty and brutal breach of federal constitutional law and Department of Defense/Air Force regulations,” Mr. Weinstein said in an email.

Mr. Weinstein, who said he represents 144 Air Force Academy faculty, staff and cadets, including five football players, expressed frustration that academy officials notified him of their decision after providing statements to the Air Force Times and The Washington Times.

The statement to The Washington Times was provided Wednesday in response to a reporter’s telephone inquiry.

Mr. Weinstein’s group filed a complaint two weeks ago to stop what he described as the “wholly illicit, illegal and unconstitutional pattern of exhibitionist pregame Christian prayer stunts displayed by players with the U.S. Air Force Academy’s football team, the Falcons.”

Although praying players are commonplace in college football, the Air Force Academy needs to be held to a different standard because its players represent the military and are performing a required function of their service when they take the field, he said.

“It’s a disgrace. It’s a putrid example of fundamentalist Christian supremacy, triumphalism and exceptionalism, and it has to stop,” Mr. Weinstein told NBC 7 in San Diego shortly after filing the complaint.

Video posted on the station’s website shows several dozen players jogging at various times to the end zone, taking a knee and bowing their heads, then jogging back to the bench before the Dec. 5 game against San Diego State.

“Those individuals that are dressed in the Air Force uniform, that’s their uniform of the day. They’re members of the military, and they are under different rules than the civilian counterparts they’re playing on the field,” he said.

The complaint touched off rebuttals from religious freedom advocates, who argued that the cadets have a First Amendment right to engage in voluntary prayer.

“We applaud the Air Force Academy in recognizing that these cadets do not lose their religious freedom by virtue of their service to our country,” said lawyer Daniel Briggs, the Alliance Defending Freedom’s director of military affairs.

Mr. Weinstein cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, which concluded that a high school’s mass prayer at football games violated the Constitution’s establishment clause, but Mr. Briggs said the Air Force Academy case is different.

“That case involved prayer before the football game over the loudspeaker. This is a completely different situation — totally voluntary and student-led,” Mr. Briggs said in a letter to Air Force Academy officials defending the pregame prayer tradition.

“Military members do not forfeit their constitutional freedoms by virtue of their service to our country,” Mr. Briggs said. “Even at the Academy, cadets still enjoy the right to free speech and the free exercise of religion. … Cadet-led prayer does not violate any purported ‘separation of church and state.’”

He added, “Courts have long recognized that this term is a misrepresented and tiresome platitude found nowhere within the Constitution. The First Amendment does not demand that all things religious be purged from the military.”

Mr. Weinstein said his clients include five football players — four Christians and one who is “pretending to be a Christian” — who are “terrified” to file an official complaint for fear of facing “reprisal or retribution.”

In a Dec. 13 editorial, the Colorado Springs Gazette spoke out in favor of the end-zone prayer tradition, saying Mr. Weinstein’s complaint “should be seen as a dangerous assault on fundamental freedom, whether one is religious or not.”

Mr. Weinstein, a 1977 Air Force Academy graduate, told the Air Force Times that the prayer “stands in a long line of conservative Christian acts,” prompting the Gazette to ask how he knows the “religious preferences and political affiliations of each player.”

“But never mind the facts; ‘conservative’ and ‘Christian’ are intended as pejoratives that might generate support and financial contributions from those who fear ‘the Christian right,’” said the editorial. “It is no less shameful than exploiting fear of Islam for personal or political gain.”

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