Five Air Force Academy instructors and an advocacy group have filed a court complaint to stop a February prayer luncheon because of its outspoken evangelical speaker.
The complaint, filed in conjunction with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation on Monday, contends that the academy is violating the separation of church as state as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
In the complaint, the plaintiffs lament that the luncheon purports to be an inclusive, interfaith effort to emphasize “the spiritual values upon which our nation is founded,” but then fouls that effort with its speaker choice. They criticize the keynote speaker, Lt. Clebe McClary, as a Christian who commonly intertwines military codes with his evangelical beliefs. Therefore, the academy is actively promoting the Christian faith through the event, the documents contend.
McClary is a motivational speaker who generally uses his story of hand-to-hand combat in Vietnam to inspire others. He has spoken for many secular companies and groups, according to his press kit. However, McClary has made no secret of his faith. As a disabled veteran, he shares on his website that the only military he currently serves is "the Lord's army." He also shares, "To [me], USMC will always mean a U. S. Marine for Christ."
The president of the New Mexico-based MRFF, Mikey Weinstein, is determined to halt the luncheon. He is also calling for the ouster of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, saying the choice of McClary as a speaker shows Gould “is tilted toward evangelical Christianity and tolerates an environment where proselytizing is accepted.”
The National Prayer Luncheon, which will be held on the Colorado Springs campus of the USAFA on Feb. 10, has drawn a lot of ire for featuring McClary. Interfaith Alliance President Rev. C. Welton Gaddy raised his concerns about the Vietnam veteran in a letter dated January 29.
“Inviting Lt. McClary appears to be a step backward in creating a climate of religious respect,” Gaddy wrote to Gould.
He continued, “For me, the issues at the center of this controversy are not so much what is legal, but what is wise. Given the history of USAFA regarding religious respect … making appropriate choices is as important as obeying laws.”
The history Gaddy alludes to is that of a 2004 survey revealing the academy of about 4,000 cadets had issues with religious tolerance. Cadets reported hearing slurs or jokes about other religions and that some felt ostracized because they weren't religious.
An Air Force task force concluded in 2005 that there was no overt discrimination by evangelical Christians, but it said the academy failed to accommodate the religious needs of some cadets and staff. It also cited a perception of intolerance. But the Air Force reported in 2009 that religious tolerance has improved dramatically.
Event organizers are taking steps to maintain an atmosphere of religious pluralism. The USAFA announced that there will be readings by an Islamic Airman, a Jewish Airman, an African-American Christian Airman, a Jewish chaplain, a Buddhist sensei and a Catholic chaplain.
Gaddy also shared in his letter that he was assured by USAFA Chaplain the Rev. Robert Bruno that “Lt. McClary knows what is and what is not appropriate to say at events like these.”
Gaddy conceded, “I sincerely hope that is the case and that he will not use this speech as an opportunity to illegally proselytize or to speak of Christian exclusivism or superiority on a military base.”
However, Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the academy, is not willing to wait and see what happens. He has filed a motion for an injunction to halt the event. He hopes to have a hearing in court before the end of the month.