'Commander-in-Chief Jesus' Signs to Greet Obama at AF Academy

  • Courtesy of MRFF
    Courtesy of MRFF
  • Courtesy of MRFF
    Courtesy of MRFF

When President Obama heads to the Air Force Academy in Colorado on Wednesday, it's entirely possible he'll catch glimpse of a welcoming billboard -- or perhaps even a banner towed by a plane -- asking "Why is Jesus Commander-in-Chief here?"

The billboards are bearing a message from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a civil rights organization that for a decade has been fighting to maintain a separation of church and state within the military.

And nowhere has the group fought more often than at the Colorado Springs-based service academy, where in 2004 the commandant urged cadets to use a "J is for Jesus" hand sign to signify their faith and just this past year the school's football team routinely gathered in what could only be seen as a Christian prayer at the start of their games.

Even when the Air Force conceded there was a problem, however, it has never taken serious action to stop the behavior, according to Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the MRFF.

"We thought the best way to bring attention to this issue was to put up the billboards [for Obama to see], as he does the last commencement of his presidency," Weinstein said.

The White House did not respond to Military.com's request for comment, or even to confirm whether Obama or his advance team are aware of the billboards and banner. The banner, flown by Drag 'n' Fly Banners, reads "Why is Jesus Commander in Chief at USAFA?"

Weinstein said he initially ran into resistance getting his signs placed on the billboard. Weinstein said the first company he approached, Lamar Advertising, would not take his business because it is "not factual" that Jesus is the commander-in-chief of the Air Force Academy.

Lamar did not respond to Military.com's request for comment. The billboard company previously refused to rent billboard space in Kentucky that mocked a creationist theme park based on Noah's Ark and pulled down a billboard it had already rented in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to a group seeking support for survivors of the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, which left 38 dead and more than 100 wounded.

Weinstein said Lamar has previously rented space to MRFF for its messages to the Air Force Academy. One was a quotation from a senior academy leader vowing he would talk of Jesus Christ to everyone he works with at the school and another attacking the school for having on its Character and Leadership Development staff an advocate of "reparative" or "conversion" therapy to turn gay people straight.

Though the MRFF has pressed all the services and, most recently, the Department of Veterans Affairs, when Weinstein has seen evidence or heard complaints from service members about alleged violation of the Constitution or Defense Department regulations, a great many of his fights have been with the Air Force Academy, where he is an alumnus.

But even when the Air Force found problems of religious bias at the school -- overt or not -- leaders have never taken strong action to deter it, according to Weinstein.

"Not a single person has ever been punished for their religious extremism there," Weinstein said.

The Air Force itself concluded 11 years ago that some on the faculty used their positions to promote Christianity. And beyond the "well intended, but wrong" -- in the words of the Air Force -- evangelizing and the "J is for Jesus" signal, there was a "Team Jesus" banner hung across the football team's locker.

In 2010, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, who is Jewish, went to the academy to tell leaders they had to stop the behavior. Weinstein said Schwartz's words were ineffectual, as he was ignored.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at Bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at@BryantJordan.

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