Air Force Academy prayer luncheon lawsuit: Faculty members say event's unconstitutional
Attorney David Lane may have lost his last high-profile case -- an excessive-force complaint against Denver cop/ex-American Gladiators contestant Vicki Ferrari -- but he's hardly shying away from taking on big challenges. Note that he's just filed a lawsuit against the Air Force Academy, alleging that a National Prayer Luncheon slated for February 10 violates the constitutional separation between church and state.
The suit, on view in its entirety below, lists as its plaintiffs four John Does who Lane says are faculty members at the Academy, as well as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, whose founder, Mikey Weinstein, objected last August to the Academy's decision to keep a cadet survey on religion confidential. Even Representative Mike Coffman joined in the call to make the survey public -- and in October, after several months of controversy, the Academy acquiesced.
In regard to the current case, Lane concedes that "the Supreme Court is all over the place when it comes to religion cases." For example, "what they've decided about starting legislative sessions with a prayer is that it's ingrained in our nation's history -- it started with the Continental Congress. But you're not allowed to start a football game with a prayer at a public high school event -- they've ruled on that. And even though you can have the Ten Commandments posted in some places, you can't in other places."
The common thread, he believes, "is that something has to have a secular purpose as well as a religious purpose. It's okay having Jesus on the front steps of the City & County Building as long as Uncle Frosty and Cousin Santa are standing guard, because that serves a secular, cultural purpose."
And the Academy's prayer luncheon? It has no historical defense, he maintains -- "They haven't been doing it since 1781" -- and neither can it claim a secular goal. In his view, "it's a clearly religious event -- and it's sponsored by command."
In some ways, this argument is similar to one made in another major case. "This past spring, a federal judge in Wisconsin declared the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional," Lane says -- although there's no telling if the ruling will stand over the long term: "It's been argued in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and is awaiting a decision -- and I expect the Supreme Court will grant cert on that case, to further muddy or clarify the situation, depending on your perspective."
No matter what happens in regard to that issue, Lane feels "very confident we'll prevail" with the Air Force Academy lawsuit, "because it doesn't fall within any of the exceptions. And there's some very interesting case law from the U.S. Supreme Court on this. On campuses, if student groups are allowed, schools can't prohibit religiously based student groups. So if a student religious group wanted to sponsor this exact event at the Air Force Academy, it would be fine. What distinguishes this event is that it's being pushed by the command structure of the Air Force."
Page down to read the suit.