On The Radio Factor, guest host Michael Smerconish falsely attacked recently released Air Force draft guidelines on public prayer and religious conversations as prohibiting members of the Air Force to pray at certain public events. In fact, the guidelines do not affect voluntary prayer or religious conversations between those of equal standing; they do, however, discourage and restrict activities which create the impression of an official or leadership endorsement of prayer or religion.
Discussing the new guidelines, Smerconish said that he found them "inconsistent" because, he claimed, they say that "if you're about to go into combat ... we're going to allow you to pray, but if it is just another breakfast at the Air Force Academy or the start of a football game, then, no, we think it is inappropriate." Later in the program, a caller commented that if "the entire football team decided that they wanted to engage in prayer and they wanted their mentor to participate, what I just heard was the mentor can't participate." Smerconish responded by taking it a step further, claiming that "the players cannot gather in prayer before they go out on the gridiron."
In fact, the Air Force's draft guidelines do not stop service members from praying on their own or voluntarily choosing to pray, but instead target officially sanctioned public prayer at many official events because of the appearance that either the Air Force or a person in command has endorsed a religion. "Public prayer should not usually be included in official settings such as staff meetings, office meetings, classes, or officially sanctioned activities such as sports events or practice sessions," unless under extraordinary circumstances like mass casualties or imminent combat. The guidelines do not apply to voluntary worship settings, and they allow official events to include a "moment of silence for personal reflection." Other parts of the guidelines follow the same pattern of targeting the appearance of official endorsement. For instance, one section of the guidelines discourages people of superior rank from discussing their personal religious beliefs with subordinates -- while expressly noting that "nothing in this guidance should be understood to limit voluntary, peer to peer discussions."
The guidelines address official conduct and command endorsement of religion because they are a response to widespread and documented complaints that commanders and others in positions of authority at the Air Force Academy had pushed their religious beliefs on subordinates and cadets. Those allegations resulted in a report by the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State detailing allegations that commanders and student leaders pressured cadets to get involved with religion, particularly evangelical Christian denominations. One example was a "Commander's Guidance" document issued by the academy's commandant of cadets, Brig. Gen. Johnny A. Weida, that "instructed cadets that they 'are accountable first to your God.'" Another was the head football coach, Fisher DeBerry, who, among other incidents, "placed a banner reading 'I am a Christian first and last * * * I am a member of Team Jesus Christ' in the locker room used by the academy's football team." The subsequent official investigation faulted a lack of guidance for what it termed "insensitivity" by academy officials. The guidelines are meant to address those allegations of official endorsement.
Media Matters for America documented a similar distortion of restrictions on prayer at public institutions by Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who falsely claimed that the Supreme Court had prohibited people from praying at high school football games. There, as here, the issue was the appearance of a state endorsement of the prayer, because a student delivered the prayer over the school-controlled public address system. The Supreme Court noted that nothing in its decision prevented anyone from voluntarily praying on their own at a football game.
From the August 30 broadcast of Westwood One's The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly:
SMERCONISH: New guidelines from the Air Force Academy -- actually, they're going to apply to the Air Force generally. I shouldn't limit this just to the academy. Here's where I find them to be inconsistent. The guidelines discourage public prayer at official Air Force events or meetings other than worship services, one of the most contentious issues for many of the commanders, by the way. But they allow for a brief, non-sectarian prayer at special ceremonies like those honoring promotions or extraordinary circumstances like mass causalities, preparation for imminent combat, and natural disaster.
Does that sound inconsistent to you? If you're about to go into combat, well, sure, we're going to allow you to pray, but if it is just another breakfast at the Air Force Academy or the start of a football game, then, no, we think it is inappropriate. You can't it both ways.
CALLER: Hi. Listen, you know what? I've been sitting here listening. I'm driving down the interstate and I'm listening to the participation of the speaker before [a previous caller]. And I have to agree, not only with [the previous caller], but with your comments. I lived through watching what was taking place in Virginia Military Institute when they were trying to decide whether or not an individual would be allowed to say a prayer before a noontime meal. And I think what's happened is -- and the Air Force as well -- is that people have gone to the extreme. If a -- this would be a perfect example. If, in fact, the entire football team decided that they wanted to engage in prayer and they wanted their mentor to participate, what I just heard was the mentor can't participate. If they want the fellow that they look up to leads them onto the field --
CALLER: They're not allowed.
SMERCONISH: That's right. They can --
CALLER: So mentors need not apply.
SMERCONISH: But it's worse than that. The players cannot -- I hate to even use this example because I -- it's morbid. But the players can not gather in prayer before they go out on the gridiron, but God forbid the flight that takes them to their next game should have some kind of a problem that develops into a catastrophic event, well, then in a ceremony to honor those players, of course, we're going to permit prayer. How do you -- I mean, how do you put the two together? You can't.