An exchange of words Sept. 19 on Capitol Hill reminded us that religion continues to be an issue in the Air Force.
Deborah James, the nominee to be secretary of the Air Force, was testifying before the Senate subcommittee charged with acting on her nomination.
James ran straight into the rift between defenders of religious practice as an expression of civil liberties and critics who argue that while faith may be a good thing, it doesn’t belong in the workplace.
Both sides have proponents who are fervent in their faith and others who aren’t believers at all.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., asked James if it’s acceptable for an airman to have a Bible on his desk or for a chaplain to end a prayer “in Jesus’ name.”
Vitter said each example is “a documented case” among 42 that have come to his attention in which individuals were barred from certain actions.
Vitter said efforts to remove religion from the workplace amount to “political correctness run amok on steroids ... quashing legitimate exercise and expression of religion in the military.”
In what she may have instantly recognized as a slip, James told Vitter: “Having a Bible on your desk, that doesn’t seem like it should be banned.”
Less controversially, referring to the chaplain’s prayer, James said, “That doesn’t bother me.” She added, “Something that may not be troubling to me personally may be to others and the idea of dignity and respect for all religions, to include those who have no religion at all, it’s equally important.”
Among critics of religion in the workplace is Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who said in a Sept. 24 telephone interview that James’ comment about a Bible is dead wrong.
“If she thinks it’s perfectly fine for a commander to have a Bible on his desk, she’s aligning herself with extremists,” Weinstein said. “She needs to read Air Force Instruction 1-1, Section 2.11 about religion in the workplace.”
Weinstein said the Air Force instruction prohibits the scripture of any branch of religion, not just Christianity.
Vitter and James seemed to be talking about an everyday airman on duty, not about a commander. That doesn’t satisfy Weinstein.
“She is starting out on the wrong foot,” Weinstein said. “Her remark about the Bible is not a small thing.”
In my view, religion belongs at home or in chapel, not in the orderly room or on the flight line.
Still, we need to cut James a little slack.
If James is confirmed by the Senate, we ought to wait and see how she addresses religious concerns once she’s on the job.
Thanks to 40 readers who suggested names for the KC-46 tanker after the deadline for my Sept. 30 column.
Three readers suggested the new aircraft should be named the Linebacker.
That suggestion isn’t half bad.