Air Force Drops Flyovers At ‘God And Country’ Fest In Nampa, Idaho

The Department of Defense has ended its practice of sending Air Force pilots to do flyovers at 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 in July. According to the event’s sponsors, the Pentagon has frequently provided support for the festival since it began in 1967 to “promote our country’s founding ideals and faith in God.”


Festival organizers made no effort to hide the event’s sectarian nature. Patti Syme, the festival’s director, told the Idaho Press-Tribune that the event is “as Christian as you can get; we believe in promoting Christianity.”


This year, however, organizers were told there would be no Air Force flyovers.


“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,” Defense Department officials said.


The officials added, “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.”


Air Force participation in evangelical rallies has sparked controversy in years past. Military officials blocked involvement at a similar evangelical Christian event in Stone Mountain Park, Ga., in 2007 after Americans United protested.


Opposing Air Force involvement in the Georgia event, 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 highlighted what was called a “Salute to the Troops” celebration that promised hourly flyovers by Air Force B-2 bombers and parachuting demonstrations by the Army’s Silver Wings Parachute Jump Team. But event organizers also pledged there would be Bible distribution, worship services, personal religious “testimony” by a uniformed B-2 pilot and revival-type sermons given by dozens of ministers.


Religious Right activists were angry over the Air Force’s decision not to take part in the Idaho event.


In other news about the military:


• Americans United in July asked the Senate Armed Services Committee to question U.S. Rep. John M. McHugh, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be Secretary of the Army, about his views on religious liberty and the rights of religious minorities.


McHugh, who formerly served as a Republican member of Congress from New York, frequently cosponsored or voted for measures that would undermine church-state separation, AU charged.


The AU action seems to have had a positive effect. During confirmation hearings, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asked McHugh about the role of military chaplains.


McHugh replied, “My understanding is every chaplain who goes into the service has a prime directive. And that is in, in those instances where it’s far likely that there are multi-denominational attendees the chaplain must be sensitive to, to the nature of that, of that assemblage….


“[W]hen you have a general assemblage,” he continued, “they must be sensitive and…not fit, not make comments that would be offensive to others in that assemblage. I can’t imagine our ever changing that. Certainly, in my opinion, any chaplain who does not adhere to that needs to be admonished and instructed as to their primary responsibility.”


The Senate was scheduled to vote on McHugh’s nomination as this issue of Church & State went to press. It is expected he will be easily confirmed.