Flyover Flap: Air Force Drops Participation In Idaho Religious Festival

The Department of Defense has ended a decades-old tradition of lending support to a fundamentalist Christian festival in Idaho.

The Pentagon nixed a request for military flyovers during the "Treasure Valley God and Country Festival" held annually in Nampa. (Yes, this is the same city that wanted to pull sex education books from its public library shelves last year)

According to sponsors, the Pentagon has allowed these flyovers at the festival since it began in 1967 to "promote our country's founding ideals and faith in God."

The religious nature of the event is apparent. In fact, the rally's director, Patti Syme, told the Idaho Press-Tribune that the event is "as Christian as you can get – we believe in promoting Christianity."

In denying the flyover request, government officials said:

"Air Force and DoD policy prohibit support for events which appear to endorse, selectively benefit, or favor any special interest group, religious or ideological movement.... We are not questioning the worthiness of the event, but rather enforcing DoD and Air Force policy to preserve the operational and training requirements of our aviation units and to practice the prudent stewardship of taxpayer-financed resources."

The decision follows an earlier move by officials to stop military involvement with a similar evangelical Christian event in Stone Mountain Park, Ga., which Americans United protested in 2007.

Back then, AU's legal department wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force and the Acting Secretary of the Army, arguing that the military's co-sponsorship and planned participation in the Georgia rally violated church-state separation.

At that event, promotional materials for what they called a "Salute to the Troops" celebration promised hourly flyovers by Air Force B-2 Bombers and parachuting demonstrations by the Army's Silver Wings Parachute Jump Team. All this excitement was mixed in with Bible distributions, worship services, personal religious "testimony" by a uniformed B-2 pilot and revival-type sermons given by dozens of ministers.

Fortunately, after AU made a stink, officials took steps to put distance between the Air Force and the event, including denying the flyover request.

We were happy to see our work paid off in Georgia. And now, it's even better to know it may have helped make an important change across the board.

Of course, this is not sitting well with Religious Right activists.

"For the Obama administration to deny a flyover for the first time is a slap in the face to all those who proudly serve our country, especially when we are at war," said Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, head of the Christian Defense Coalition.

"Will the new policy of President Obama be that a person has to surrender their faith tradition to honor and pay tribute to our courageous men and women who serve in the military?" Mahoney asked.

The answer is no, of course.

Events like the "God and Country Festival" can still honor our armed forces, but they just have to do it without the government's endorsement and support.

Mahoney and other Religious Right leaders should not be able to seek the help of the military to further push "Christian nation" propaganda, as it does with these events. Hopefully, that strategy ends here.