WASHINGTON — During a Senate panel hearing on the defense budget, Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee pressed Defense Department officials on the recent uproar over the removal of a Bible verse from an Air Force Academy cadet’s white board.
Earlier this month, the Air Force Academy had a Bible verse — from the Book of Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ therefore I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” — removed from a cadet’s whiteboard, raising concerns about the free expression of religion.
During the hearing, Lee pointed to an amendment adopted last year as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014 which clarified “unless it could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline, the Armed Forces shall accommodate individual expressions of belief.”
The Utah senator explained that he viewed the whiteboard Bible verse as an “individual expression of belief.”
“How can this particular Bible verse, quoted by this cadet from the Book of Galatians, simply declaring his faith from which he draws inspiration, placed on a board that is traditionally used for that purpose, to reflect that cadet’s personality and sources from which the cadet draws inspiration — How can that be deemed inappropriate?” Lee asked.
Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright explained that while she was aware of the incident, she did not have enough details and had reports that seemed to conflict with Lee’s understanding to offer a full explanation.
“But globally for the Department of Defense we do support one freedom of speech and we totally support the freedom to exercise your religion,” she said, telling Lee that as a Catholic, on her desk she keeps a mass card of St. Therese.
“I don’t start out my meetings that way, because as a leader of 32,000 people that would be inappropriate. But I use that. And so I think that common sense needs to clearly be applied when we talk about whether or not they can have an article of faith or something like that on their desk or on their wall. But when you’re a leader, you have to understand that you have all faiths that you command and you must respect everybody’s faith,” she said.
Wright offered to visit with the senator on the matter once she had more details.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness and Force Management Frederick E. Vollrath did not have anything to add on the matter — he said that “it is fundamental that free speech and exercise of religion is part of what makes America, America.”
Lee concluded that regardless of the details, the fact that the verse was removed is “alarming.”
“Much as it would be alarming, I would think, if someone came to you and removed something from your desk that is a source of faith and inspiration [to] you,” he said. “And this is exactly the kind of scenario we had in mind when we adopted this amendment and certainly when I introduced this amendment.”