Air Force budget hearing debates religious freedom

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, left, joined at right by Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh​, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on the FY 2015 budget request, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March 14, 2014. The Associated Press has uncovered a series of security lapses and other troubles in the nation's nuclear forces. The issue came to a head in January when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel summoned top military leaders and ordered a review of the problems. Airmen responsible for missile operations at Minot Air Force Base would have failed their portion of a major inspection in March 2013 but managed a “marginal” rating because their poor marks were blended with the better performance of support staff — like cooks and facilities managers. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James (left) joined at right by Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh​, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A congressional hearing on the Air Force budget turned into a debate about religious freedom on Friday when some Republicans demanded to know why a cadet was made to erase a religious message he’d written on a dry-erase board in his Air Force Academy dorm.

Randy Forbes (R-Va.) jousted with Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James over the facts of the incident, which Forbes originally heard about from news reports (our Google research shows this story was mostly covered by right-leaning outlets).

As the story goes, a cadet had written on a whiteboard: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

In the version Forbes relayed, the “entire” Air Force chain of command told the cadet to erase the quote from his whiteboard in his private room. James said it was her understanding that another cadet, who felt uncomfortable went straight to the source, and the cadet who wrote it voluntarily took it down.

At the House Armed Services Committee hearing, Forbes asserted that religious freedom “is not to make sure no person on the planet is offended, it’s to say that cadet ought to have the right in an own personal board to put that verse up there.”

Gen. Mark Welsh III, chief of staff of the Air Force, jumped in and said the whiteboard in question is not located in the cadets’ rooms, but rather in a shared hallway. There have been “hundreds of quotes” removed from the public board, he said.

“What you said is absolutely true. Every cadet has a right to free religious expression, but if someone else comes to him and says that bothers me, and they have that discussion — if that’s happened, I would compliment both of them,” Welsh said. Then added, “We’ve got to get the facts straight.”

Forbes told the Loop in an e-mail that he remains “deeply concerned” that the Air Force is teaching that religious expression is “incompatible with effective leadership.”

After Friday’s hearing, the Air Force Academy sought to clear up the facts. On its own Web site the academy clarifies that the cadet was not ordered to take down the message, but did so on his own after a conversation with the chain of command.

Not every Republican was so dour about the situation. Providing some levity to the hearing debate, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), asked the secretary, “if I am offended by your budget, will you take it down?”

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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