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Church-state separation group blasts academy in TV ad

Nov. 19, 2013 - 05:21PM   |  
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation plans to air a TV commercial in Colorado that blasts the Air Force Academy for what the group says is religious intolerance.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation plans to air a TV commercial in Colorado that blasts the Air Force Academy for what the group says is religious intolerance. (Raymond McCoy/Air Force)
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An organization that advocates for the separation of church and state in the military plans to air a television commercial that blasts the Air Force Academy for what the group says is religious intolerance.

“The United States Air Force Academy has become a fundamentalist Christian military ministry,” a narrator says in the beginning of the ad, shared with Air Force Times. As the narrator speaks, the “t” in the word “military” morphs into a large wooden cross.

The commercials are created by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and began airing Nov. 19 on Comcast channels in Colorado Springs, where the academy is located; and Pueblo, Colo.MRFF also hopes to air ads on NBC’s affiliate in Denver, but as of Nov. 19, the channel had not yet decided whether to air them.

In October, MRFF asked the academy to drop the words “so help me God” from the end of its honor oath. The academy decided to make that clause optional but kept the language in the oath.

MRFF President Mikey Weinstein said that wasn’t good enough, and on Nov. 6, MRFF erected a billboard at the corner of North Nevada Avenue and Garden of the Gods Road in Colorado Springs, a few miles from the academy, demanding the religious language be struck from the oath.

That evening, academy preparatory school trainer Allen Willoughby sent Weinstein an email criticizing the MRFF president and saying, “I am on staff at USAFA and will talk about Jesus Christ my Lord and savior to everyone that I work with.”

The MRFF’s ad excerpts that sentence from Willoughby’s email — though it does not identify him by name and only refers to him as an Air Force Academy leader — and then says, “Stop violating the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Air Force regulations, Air Force Academy, and save the saving for the chapel.”

The ad concludes by urging the academy to respect cadets, staff and faculty of any faith or no faith.

“We’re going into full frontal assault mode for this outrage,” Weinstein said. “We want to make it very clear that USAFA is completely in violation of the body of the Constitution, because it created a religious test, not only by the [religious language in the] oath, but by not disciplining Willoughby.”

In a statement to Air Force Times, academy spokesman Maj. Brus Vidal said, “Mr. Allen Willoughby does not speak for the Air Force’s academy, and we absolutely do not tolerate proselytizing among our ranks.”

Vidal continued: “The Air Force’s academy is committed to protecting individuals’ right to practice any religion they choose, or no religion, provided their practices do not violate policy or law, or impede mission accomplishment, military readiness, unit cohesion, standards or discipline. “USAFA has a robust, structured Religious Respect Training Program that helps cadets, cadet candidates, faculty and staff understand how the First Amendment applies to them at USAFA with an expectation that all are educated on religious respect and, in turn, are practitioners of respect.”

Weinstein said he expects the ad to run hundreds of times at least through the end of this week, although he said MRFF could extend its run. He would not say exactly how much MRFF is spending on the ads, but said it was “multiple thousands of dollars.”

Comcast confirmed Nov. 18 that it would run the ad in Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Weinstein said it would air on multiple channels on Comcast, but was not sure how many. The NBC affiliate in Denver, KUSA, would not comment.

MRFF has also erected a second billboard at the corner of Garden of the Gods Road and Centennial Boulevard in Colorado Springs, nearly 10 miles south of the academy, featuring Willoughby’s quote next to an American flag decorated with crosses. At its base, the billboard reads, “We get it, but we won’t tolerate it!”

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