Ten years ago, Americans United began looking into allegations of improper promotion of fundamentalist Christianity at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
The issue was brought to our attention by Mikey Weinstein, whose son was at the time a cadet at the Academy. Working with Weinstein and others, AU cataloged a host of problems that were outlined in a report. (Weinstein has since gone on to form the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.)
A decade has passed, but problems at the Academy remain. Most recently, a flap arose over members of the Air Force Falcons, the Academy’s football team, who are taking part in a joint prayer on the field during games.
I’ll admit that when I first read about this, I didn’t think it was a big deal. These are college students, I reasoned, not high schoolers. They could decline to take part if they don’t want to pray, right?
It turns out it’s not that simple. Weinstein has shared with me an email he received from a player on the team. The young man can’t give his name for obvious reasons. He writes that there’s great pressure to particiapte in the joint prayer.
“If you don’t go along with it you are not going to be viewed as a good follower or teammate,” the anonymous player writes. “I am not alone. There are enough of us who feel pressured to conform and this is wrong. I have not seen any of our opponents do what our so many players on the AFA team have been doing. I mean virtually the whole team kneeling down and praying on the field in front of the crowds.”
The player points out that he’s a Christian but adds that he opposes the public prayer practice. He worries what will happen to him if anyone finds out about that.
“How can we be hurt?” he asks. “A lot of ways. One of the worst is by getting tagged as an informer here at USAFA and having this follow us after we get into the Air Force. None of us should have to deal with this on those terms.”
As the player notes in his message, there are plenty of opportunities for members of the team who want to pray before the game to do so in the locker room. But they seem to want to make a public display for some reason – and this player believes it’s to put pressure on everyone else. (Weinstein tells me he has received several other similar emails from players.)
The unique nature of the Air Force Academy adds another layer of complexity. I was unaware of this, but it turns out that cadets are required to attend football games at the Academy. Home games are considered a type of military formation; very few excused absences are granted.
In addition, the hierarchical nature of the military can make it difficult for students and players who don’t want to take part in prayer or religious activities to speak out. Taking a public stand means going against the chain of command. Few cadets want to take that risk. For that reason, the MRFF is protecting the anonymity of its clients.
Ten years ago, officials at the Academy vowed to make changes in the wake of the issues highlighted in AU’s report. Some policy shifts occurred, and for a time it appeared that things were on the upswing. Pagan cadets even won the right to build an outdoor worship space.
But in light of these recent incidents, it appears that the Academy’s leaders still have some work to do.