WASHINGTON – A federal judge on Friday threw out a lawsuit against the Air Force Academy that claimed evangelical Christian values were being illegally pushed on cadets.
The academy's critics said the decision by senior U.S. District Judge James A. Parker in Albuquerque, N.M., would likely be appealed.
The high-profile case was brought by a group of Air Force Academy graduates who charged that a military chaplain violated their religious freedom rights by urging cadets to attend Christian services or face being burned "in the fires of hell." That incident reflected a broader policy, the group charged, of efforts to evangelize U.S. Air Force staff.
But Parker, in a 16-page decision, said the graduates could not claim their First Amendment rights were violated since they no longer attended the Academy. Moreover, the group failed to give specific examples of which cadets were harmed, or when.
"Without that personal link or connection to future misconduct, plaintiffs have simply not shown that they will suffer an injury in fact that is both concrete and particularized and actual or imminent," Parker wrote.
The judge also rejected claims by Air Force Master Sgt. Phillip T. Burleigh, who asked to be included in the lawsuit after allegedly being discriminated against in 1997 for not attending prayer meetings. Burleigh, of Alamogordo, N.M., also claimed his supervisor used government resources to evangelize recruits, including hiring religious motivational speakers to lecture at mandatory-attendance conferences.
Parker called Burleigh's concerns "simply conjectural and hypothetical in nature."
Last year, an Air Force task force concluded there was no overt religious discrimination at the school but that some cadets and staff were insensitive. And in a step welcomed by conservative Christians, the Air Force in February released new guidelines for religious expression that dropped cautions to top officers about promoting their personal religious views.
The lawsuit was brought by Mikey Weinstein, of Albuquerque, an Air Force Academy honors graduate who could not be immediately reached for comment Friday. But the Rev. Barry W. Lynn of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State said he expected the graduates to appeal the decision.
"These were very serious, systematic violations of the Constitution at the Air Force Academy," Lynn said. "This is clearly not the end of the story. ... Chaplains and officers are there to meet spiritual needs, and not to convert people to Christianity."
An Air Force Academy spokeswoman did not have an immediate comment.