Of all the US military services, the Air Force seems to bump up against the constitutional separation of church and state most often.
The US Air Force Academy has been criticized for giving preferential treatment to cadets who were evangelical Christians and promoting proselytizing in the ranks, a situation officials say they’ve remedied.
In 2011, the Air Force was reported to have suspended a training course for nuclear missile launch officers that used Bible passages and religious imagery in a PowerPoint presentation about the ethics of war.
When some nonreligious cadets complained last year, the phrase “so help me God” was made optional in the Air Force Academy’s honor oath. (The oath, required of first-year cadets, had been approved by the Cadet Wing in 1984, following widespread allegations of cheating in a physics class.)
This week, officials at Robins Air Force Base – which is located in the Bible Belt in Georgia – went back and forth over the issue of whether gate guards could wish people “a blessed day” when checking IDs.
As anonymous airman complained to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation that as a nonreligious person, he felt uncomfortable being told numerous times to “have a blessed day.”
“I found the greeting to be a notion that I, as a nonreligious member of the military community, should believe a higher power has an influence on how my day should go,” the airman wrote. The organization reported similar complaints from 13 Air Force individuals, nine of whom were described as practicing Christians.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, based in Albuquerque, N.M., is a civil rights and advocacy organization that has been involved in several high-profile cases challenging the US Defense Department over such issues as proselytizing and the presence of religious themes and practices in military units perceived as violating the US Constitution – particularly given a command structure in which subordinates feel pressured not to object.
The foundation is headed by Air Force Academy honor graduate and former military lawyer Michael Weinstein, whose two sons also are academy graduates.
When Mr. Weinstein brought up the issue with senior officers at Robins AFB, they quickly conceded, agreeing that airmen checking IDs at base entrances should say "have a nice day" instead.
A minor uproar erupted, so base officials did a quick about-face.
"The Air Force takes any expressed concern over religious freedom very seriously," base spokesman Roland Leach said in a statement Thursday. "Upon further review and consultation, the Air Force determined use of the phrase 'have a blessed day' as a greeting is consistent with Air Force standards and is not in violation of Air Force Instructions."
The standard greeting at the base is "welcome to team Robins," to which guards may add courteous and professional greetings if they wish, Mr. Leach said.
Weinstein said he was not surprised by the Air Force's decision, but he feels bad for the security forces commander for having his authority undermined by the service, Air Force Times reports.
"Whenever the Air Force is pushed to the test, they will crater to the religious right," he told the newspaper (which is not a government publication). "This is an example where it's fine to say, 'Welcome to Team Robins,' but, as I said before, what are you going to do if the gate guards say: 'Welcome to Team Robins, hail Satan!'"
Not surprisingly, the “blessed day” flap at Robins AFB has caused a stir on social media.
Someone quickly set up a special page on Facebook.
The page banners a quote attributed to George Washington – “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible” – which historians generally discount, saying it cannot be found anywhere in his writings or speeches.
Still, the number of “likes” for the page at this writing is approaching 6,000.