The United States Air Force enjoys a long, proud tradition of excellence, having helped to take down countless enemies of freedom and democracy. Recently, the Air Force unfortunately eliminated… a Nativity scene. According to a Fox News report, the baby Jesus in his manger on South Carolina’s Shaw Air Force Base… joining him were known accomplices, the three wise men, the virgin Mary, and several farm animals. Okay, … it was a plastic Nativity scene that had been set up near a lake on the base’s property. Goodness; a Nativity scene out in the open in December, in a country where Christianity is the most-practiced religion… why, because of one or two lead astray people?
Apparently, a few Airmen found the sight unbearably offensive and notified the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. The curiously-named MRFF then notified a party at the Pentagon and soon afterwards, the Nativity scene was removed. The MRFF, it seems, equates “Religious Freedom” with “No sight of any religious activity ever”. The president of the MRFF, apparently has powerful contacts in the military ready to do his anti-religious bidding. Sadly, it takes but a few (or maybe just one) complaint nowadays to eliminate something enjoyed by the vast majority of the population.
The Constitutional issue being discussed is the “separation of church and state” coined by Thomas Jefferson that refers to the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The specific Air Force policy cited in the article stems from Air Force Policy Directive 1, which serves to provide overall expectations of air force culture. The introduction to the document states that the importance of the Air Force’s mission “requires its members to adhere to higher standards than those expected in civilian life.” This document contains a number of regulations detailing topics such as core values, professional relationships, alcohol and drug abuse, performance of duty, etc. Section 2.11 is entitled “Government Neutrality Regarding Religion” and 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. For example, they 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. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order, and discipline. Airmen, especially commanders and supervisors, must ensure that in exercising their right of religious free expression, they do not degrade morale, good order, and discipline in the Air Force or degrade the trust and confidence that the public has in the United States Air Force” (AFI 1-1, 19).
My sense is that the issue at hand regarding the nativity scene is the text reading, “extend preferential treatment for any religion.” In order to analyze this, a few facts would be needed. The most critical is who placed the nativity scene on the Air Force property. If the display was placed by the Air Force, it does violate this policy (and the Constitution). Subsequently, if the display was placed by a private organization or group, but the Air Force did not allow other religious displays to be placed (i.e. a Hanukkah display), that would violate this policy. The most clear cut legal path around this problem would be if the Air Force allowed groups to place holiday displays on a specific portion of the base property and allowed displays from multiple religions. Still, this would not necessarily be an optimal solution as the Air Force may still decide to not allow any displays in order to not waste time with complaints such as these.
Essentially, from a legal standpoint, this issue appears fairly clear cut. The Air Force violated the law in having this display. However, there are certainly more debatable issues here than the legal issues. Firstly, why does this violate the law? A straight forward reading of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution would indicate that it had two very narrowly tailored aims: (1) the United States shall not create a national religion; and (2) the United States shall not ban the individual practice of any religion. Under this narrow interpretation, having a nativity display, even on government property, would be perfectly fine as it is not banning anyone else from expressing their religion nor is it creating a national religion. It would simply be celebrating a religion … in this case a religion that the majority of Americans practice.
The problem at hand, at least in my thoughts, is not the government removing this display. It clearly violated the Air Force policy cited. The biggest problem is that America has gotten to a place that is hyper-sensitive to potential litigation and political correctness. Would our Founding Fathers have been upset if a fellow citizen expressed their religion? Of course not. In fact, many of our founding fathers were atheists, yet they specifically wanted a guarantee that the government would never infringe on a citizen’s right to worship. Unfortunately, as our nation has become more politically correct, we are unable to collectively see the line between religious expression and religious oppression.
Seriously though, the simple fact that this nation was founded on religious freedom should equate to allowing any public displays of faith, so long as no individual is compelled to take part.
Whether one likes her or not, it cannot be denied that Sarah Palin, now a Fox News commentator, made a good point when she placed this story into a larger context: “The ‘War on Christmas’ is just the top of the spear in a larger battle to marginalize expressions of faith and make true religious freedom a thing of the past.” Liberals in the media tend to laugh off such suggestions but stories such as the one at Shaw Air Force Base provide a solid example of an assault on free religious expression. Dangerous precedents are being set… what will be the next targets? Will Americans eventually have to pretend that December is just another ho-hum month and decorate trees or light menorahs only at home with the curtains drawn so as not to offend any grinch passersbys Or will common sense eventually make its way back into the discussion?
Unfortunately, this problem is not going away anytime soon. See the following article for an example of a traditional Naval Christmas celebration being banned: http://www.charismanews.com/us/34909-atheists-target-military-christmas-celebrations. I particularly enjoy the quote of Chaplain Col. Crews who said, “This is another example of the military wrongly yielding to those who promote freedom from religion while squelching the constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion.” Still, there are many examples of U.S. servicemen and women around the world gathering together to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Easter, and a number of other religious holidays. However, this ability will likely continue to be threatened until these special interest organizations find something else better to do with their time. I would argue that what is developing, as Col. Crews argued above, is a general backlash against religion anywhere in the government, which is beginning to infringe on the Constitutional rights of American soldiers to practice their religion.