Monday, January 16, 2006

When is a Sergeant a Private?

When his privates are public. It's not a good joke when you have to explain it, but I mean a Sergeant is a private person when he's out of uniform, not acting in his official capacity for the military.

As I said in a previous post, there seems to be some confusion between private and public.

Private conduct can actually mean something done in public, and public conduct can mean something done in private. It's the difference between the act and the actor.

For instance -- since we always like to throw Clinton in there -- though President Clinton was a public official who broke the law when he lied under oath in a public proceeding about sex, he committed private misconduct.

President Bush is also a public official who, though he broke the law privately when he authorized eavesdropping on millions of Americans, committed public misconduct.

One is related to official acts of a public officer, the other is related to private acts of a public officer.

Now consider this letter to the RMN editor today:

At first glance, the new U.S. Air Force Academy policy on religious expression appears reasonable and fair, but when this policy silences the public expression of religious beliefs and the promotion of those beliefs, then this policy interferes in the "free exercise" of religion, and thus violates the First Amendment.


Americans enjoy freedom of religion, a freedom not restricted to private expression only.

Should the U.S. Air Force be instilling in its members and staff a sense of shame regarding Christian proselytizing (Matthew 28:18ff), or of any public expression of Jesus the Christ? Pray but don't use the "J" word; practice your faith but don't make proselytes? [emphasis added]

This person limits the use of the words "public expression" and "private expression" to mean acts in relation to the presence of others. Ignored is the fact that some people at some times are acting for the state, not for themselves. At those times, a person is said to be acting in a public capacity, no matter whether they do a thing in the presence of others or not.

Should uniformed U.S. Air Force members be proselytizing to their cadets? No, because at those times, they are speaking for the state. Though there is a group who thinks that this is a Christian nation, I still doubt they think the state should be proselytizing to seek converts to Christianity. It would violate the Establishment Clause as much as prohibiting Air Force officers an expression of religious belief violates the Free Exercise Clause.

Why do I think the Establishment Clause trumps the Free Exercise Clause when it comes to public officials acting in a public capacity? The letter writer knows:

Coercion is often cited as the reason for this new policy.

At all times at the Air Force Academy, the officers are officers, the cadets are cadets. They have an official relationship with each other, regardless of how chummy they wish to be. Coercion is a main factor in military training. Cadets follow orders and adhere to a strict hierarchy. If a commanding officer feels compelled by his religion to "make proselytes," then a cadet may feel compelled by his rank to at least pretend to be a proselyte. This is not the act of a private person, it is the act of a public person whose relationship with another is so intertwined in a government capacity that it is a public, official act.

I couldn't find the quote, and it might have been someone else's analysis, but I recall a sentiment attributed to Thomas Jefferson concerning his opposition to recommending a National Day of Prayer when he was president. Not only did he think it was not the place of the government or any public official to proscribe any religious exercise, he felt it was not the role of the government to put anyone in a position of having to not participate in a religious exercise, as they may feel compelled to "go along to get along," thus inhibiting religious liberty. Of such coercion he wrote:
Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one-half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.

It's the basis of even seemingly mundane objections to state-sponsored expressions of religious belief, such as "under God" in the pledge and "In God We Trust" on our money. They may seem innocuous, but it is the principle.

The writer continues:

If true, then a double-standard exists since the nonneutral, coercive course "Respecting the Spiritual Values of All Peoples" is mandatory for all personnel at the Air Force Academy.

Witch-hunts, female genital mutilation, widow burning, peyote-induced stupors, are all behaviors based on "spiritual values."

Do we want future Air Force officers respecting these behaviors?

Is this a strawman or a red herring? The acts listed above are not "spiritual values," they are acts based on "spiritual values." In fact, they are all acts which are illegal in the United States, as they are considered detrimental to individual rights and public safety. Such laws are violations of the Establishment Clause narrowly defined as they surely prohibit free exercise, yet they are generally accepted.

And Academy cadets are certainly taught to respect the laws of the land, which include not burning widows. They should be coerced to respect the right of others to their own spiritual beliefs and values within the limits of the law.

Let us protect freedom of religion be it private, or be it public.

Since the writer is referring only to acts performed in public or private, I agree. But as far as official versus non-official expressions of religious belief, we part ways. To put it another way, the Office of the President does not believe in God, though the President may.

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