By Noah Fitzgerel
We have yet another reason to appreciate, admire and learn from those serving in uniform. Retiring Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, chief of staff of the Air Force, earlier this month issued an unequivocal mandate ensuring the separation of church and state. His action reminds us of the progress the military continues to make in ensuring religious freedom for our men and women in uniform.
After surveying Section 2.11 of the latest update to the Air Force Instruction (AFI), I was left with a smile. It reads, “Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion.”
The Air Force, in recent years, has encountered a plethora of internal situations that have threatened to sully its reputation for remaining true to our First Amendment. It was only seven years ago, after all, that cadets at the renowned Air Force Academy accused school leaders of publicly promoting evangelical Christian sentiment to an extent that felt exclusionary.
Perhaps Gen. Schwartz had this in mind when he included the following language in the latest update to the AFI: “[Leaders] must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion.”
We are a pluralistic nation. We welcome those of both religious and non-religious inclinations. There is not one reason that the military body that is supposed to protect such a population should not reflect such a population. As evidenced by the language quoted above, Gen. Schwartz understands this sentiment.
Unfortunately, it seems as if there are some Americans who do not agree and consequently disapprove of the changing culture within the Air Force. In fact, 66 of them are members of Congress.
According to NBC News, the Congressional Prayer Caucus sent Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta a letter of protest two months ago regarding a similar measure taken by Gen. Schwartz regarding the role of Air Force chaplains. It read, “We believe this statement exemplifies the troubling 'complete separation' [of church and state] approach that is creating a chilling effect down the chain of command as airmen attempt to comply.”
To these members of Congress, Gen. Schwartz’s clear stand for religious freedom is actually an affront against religious freedom!
The Prayer Caucus’ troubling take causes me to think that our next stop in this fight will be in the halls of Congress.
Nonetheless, let us celebrate Gen. Schwartz’s brave move to ensure church-state separation and change what was once considered as the Air Force’s exclusionary religious culture.
Noah Fitzgerel is a summer intern at Americans United. He is a rising senior at Annandale High School, Annandale, Va.