Dozens of House lawmakers accused the U.S. Air Force this week of being "hostile towards religion," citing a string of recent incidents they claim show the military is taking separation of church and state too far.
"Censorship is not required for compliance with the Constitution," they wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The letter from 66 Republican members of Congress referenced a series of cases where they claim the Air Force "succumbed" to demands from outside groups.
Among the incidents:
- A decision to remove a Latin reference to "God" from a logo/motto for the Rapid Capabilities Office
- A decision to stop requiring staff to check for Bibles in Air Force Inn rooms
- The removal of a document from a distance-learning course for Squadron Officer School that suggested chapel attendance is a sign of strong leadership
- The suspension of an ethics course because the material included Bible passages
"Mr. Secretary, the combination of events mentioned above raises concerns that the Air Force is developing a culture that is hostile towards religion," the lawmakers wrote. They urged Panetta to investigate all the incidents and issue "clear Department of Defense policy guidance."
The letter was drafted by Reps. Diane Black, R-Tenn.; Randy Forbes, R-Va.; and Todd Akin, R-Mo.
The incidents were not all as clear-cut as the lawmakers made them sound.
In the case of the Squadron Officer School course, the training document in question contained the following paragraph: "If you attend chapel regularly, both officers and Airmen are likely to follow this example. If you are morally lax in your personal life, a general moral indifference within the command can be expected."
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation complained to the Air Force in March that the line "creates the inescapable impression that regular church attendance is a requirement for commissioned Air Force officers in order to demonstrate positive morals to subordinates." The group said the document violates the constitutional prohibition on religious tests for U.S. office holders.
The Air Force subsequently scrapped the document.
In the case of the Rapid Capabilities Office, the reference to God was removed following a complaint from an atheist group. The original logo, according to Fox News Radio, said in Latin: "Doing God's Work with Other People's Money."
It was changed to say, "Doing Miracles with Other People's Money."
In the case of the Air Force Inn rooms, the Air Force moved to nix a question from its checklist asking whether a Bible was provided, according to the Air Force Times, though it did not order Bibles to be removed.
The Republican lawmakers, though, said the change in attitude can all be traced back to a September 2011 memo from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz that said chaplains, "not commanders," are expected to notify airmen of the Chaplain Corps programs.
The lawmakers said this suggested "that the mere mention of these programs is impermissible." All the subsequent incidents, they said, "go beyond the requirements of the Constitution."
"The changes lend credence to the notion that the Air Force will remove any reference to God or faith that an outside organization brings to its attention," they wrote.
The Air Force said in a statement responding to the letter that airmen are "free to exercise their constitutional right to practice their religion -- in a manner that is respectful of other individuals' rights to follow their own belief systems."