A decade after the Air Force Academy football team invited controversy and censure over an “I am a member of Team Jesus” banner in its locker room, the Falcons again appear to be striking a decidedly Christian pose, its members dropping to one knee and holding hands in a public pre-game prayer circle.
The academy issued a statement saying it is investigating the practice after cadets and faculty brought it to the attention of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group.
“The United States Air Force Academy is attentive to all religious freedom concerns, and we are conducting an inquiry into the complaint,” a statement from the school said. “The Air Force is dedicated to maintaining an environment in which people can realize their highest potential, regardless of personal religious or other beliefs.”
The academy did not say how long the Falcons have been offering the team prayer. One photo on a Defense Department website shows the team at prayer before the start of the second half of a 2013 game.
Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said the Falcons’ public prayer ritual falls afoul of the establishment clause by creating the appearance that the academy shows a preference for a particular organized religion.
Cadets and faculty who have contacted him said some players take part in the prayer circle to avoid conflict with other teammates or out of fear of retaliation.
A decade ago, the academy came under fire over a banner hanging in the team’s locker room that read "I am a Christian first and last … I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."
That and other incidents, including a senior official creating a “J for Jesus” hand signal to give cadets -- who in return would reply by calling “Rocks!” -- prompted an investigation by the Air Force into religious proselytizing or intolerance at the academy.
The final report listed numerous complaints indicating a pro-Christian bias, but concluded the “problem is not overt religious discrimination, but a failure to fully accommodate all members’ needs and a lack of awareness over where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs.”
Weinstein said the academy has continued to look the other way when faced with Christian proselytizing or promotion of the faith.
Allowing the Falcons to form a prayer circle before their games and kneeling like Tim Tebow -- the free-agent quarterback known for praying on the football field -- is only the latest episode, according to Weinstein.
“The problem with this is they’re out there in the open” for all to see, he said, something that would be unconstitutional under any circumstances. The prayer circle serves as propaganda for groups such as ISIS, which wants to portray American actions in the Middle East as a war against Islam, he said.
Weinstein pointed out that the team is scheduled to play Saturday in San Diego against San Diego State for the Sports Authority Mountain West Football championship, a game that will be broadcast nationally by ESPN.
The Army recently ordered unit signs removed at Fort Rucker, Ala., and Fort Shafter, Hawaii, because they bore images associated with Christian crusaders, who invaded and occupied parts of the Middle East between the 11th and 15th centuries.
The prayer circle as fodder for ISIS was one of the points made by active-duty and retired Air Force officers, whose emails of support Weinstein published anonymously. He typically redacts identifying information on behalf of clients and supporters who fear retaliation.
“If our Islamic Extremist propaganda experts use a little imagination, the images of cadets praying together on the football field can be equated to servicemen and women conducting a crusade on Middle Eastern battlefields,” one retired general wrote. “This plays easily into the hands of those trying to portray Muslims as victims of the West, and who make a case to justify defensive jihad.”
An active-duty general agreed, saying, “The optics are not just bad but potentially deadly.”
A third writer, identified as an active-duty senior Air Force officer, said, “No one, least of all the general, is asking our cadets to NOT choose some appropriate moment to reflect, [offer] prayer, or just think about where they and the game fits into the whole cosmic scheme of things.
“AFA football players can take a moment on the bench, a solo moment in front of their lockers, etc., but the moment that they begin enlisting their teammates to join them, they create a snowball that can become an avalanche of coercion -- that’s true in ANY team or hierarchical organization and doubly true for a service academy team.”
Weinstein complained about the prayer circle on Dec. 1 in an email to Col. Brian Hill, the Academy’s vice director of athletics, but said Hill showed no interest in discussing the issue.
“If you or any of your contacts choose to file a complaint or grievance, it will be processed in accordance with Air Force standards, instructions and law,” Hill wrote back in an email published on the group’s website. He referred Weinstein to Air Force Academy Inspector General Col. David Kuenzli, and ended the email with “Have a great evening. GO FALCONS!”
--Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.