Ex-Chaplain Criticizes 'Tebow' Prayer at Air Force Football Home Games

Members of the Air Force Academy's football team pray together before a game; their public religious displays are now being investigated by the academy. (DoD photo)
Members of the Air Force Academy's football team pray together before a game; their public religious displays are now being investigated by the academy. (DoD photo)

A former Air Force Academy chaplain calls the end zone praying by members of the school's football team "another 'territorial conquest' of the Christian right."

"This stands in a long line of conservative Christian usurpation of government space via supposed voluntary demonstrations of Christian piety," MeLinda Morton, a former captain, said in an email.

Morton, who said she never saw the Falcons offer public prayers when she served at the academy 10 years ago, said the fact that home games are essentially mandatory formations for cadets should bar any public display of faith.

"I've not been to the academy in a decade. I didn't see it when I was there," she told Militay.com on Wednesday.

Morton was fired from her position at the academy in 2005 after she backed up reports that Christian officials were improperly attempting to proselytize cadets. She then resigned her commission after 13 years in the service and now serves on the advisory board of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group that promotes the separation of church and state.

The academy is investigating the public prayer ritual, in which team members take to one knee after the fashion of NFL free-agent quarterback Tim Tebow. Some of the Falcons take part only to avoid conflict with teammates or out of fear of retribution, according to Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of foundation.

A decade ago, a banner in the team locker room that read "I am a Christian first and last … I am a member of Team Jesus Christ," as well as other incidents spurred faculty and cadets to complain the academy promoted Christianity.

The public prayer ritual is even more egregious than the banner, according to Morton.

"The football game is a required military formation for both players and, in the case of home games, also for students," she said. "[Cadets] are required to attend these games, and they are also required to have automatically withdrawn from their military pay the entrance fee for [home] game attendance."

That makes play and attendance during an "official military function," she said.

Cadets who are part of a faith group that worships on Saturday, Morton said, must make a special request through the office of the chaplain, up through the chain-of-command, to be excused from the game, just as you would for any military formation.

"Few make such requests due to the difficulty of the process and the stigma associated with missing a mandatory formation," she said. For that reason, the only cadets typically exempt from attending the game are those pulling assigned duties elsewhere, she said.

An Air Force Academy spokeswoman confirmed to Military.com that home game attendance is mandatory unless excused, and ticket costs are deducted from a cadet's pay.

The academy's home games, she said, are played in a stadium that is a government facility, operated and maintained by the government.

"While the public is invited to these events, the stadium does not become 'public space' for the purposes of speech or action," the spokeswoman said.

Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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