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Update: After I published the article, I received a very angry response from Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who wasn’t happy with my conclusions and insists “there is back story here you are unaware of” which he did not explain in his public messages. I’m just reproducing his email in full:

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation says the Air Force Academy promoted Christianity with a “slick bit” of proselytizing during a soccer game last Sunday (October 30) against Seattle University.

It was the last home game of the season, which is normally a time to honor graduating seniors on the team. That’s why the Air Force Academy put up a banner underneath the scoreboard with the jersey numbers of the senior players on the team.

Screenshot via MRFF

Do you see it? Do you see the Christian proselytizing? Because MRFF’s president Mikey Weinstein soon dashed off an email to AFA superintendent Lt. General Richard M. Clark demanding an investigation that began like this:

Seriously, General Clark, it looks like you’ve just done it again. 

Do you REALLY have no shame, sir? 

It certainly appears that you and your senior leadership subordinates at the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) have engaged in yet ANOTHER act of willful and wanton unconstitutional fundamentalist Christian proselytizing

If you’re wondering how we got from the banner honoring seniors to “Do you REALLY have no shame, sir?”… you’re not alone. MRFF went from 0 to 60 real fast.

Their allegation is that the ordering of the numbers on that banner purposely puts #3 near the end so that the last two numbers are 3 and 16. That’s supposed to be a reference to John 3:16, the famous Bible verse that says “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

It’s easy to see why they might think that since the 3 is the only number out of place. Of all the places to put it, why there?

But when a local reporter asked the AFA about the positioning, a staffer gave a fairly innocuous explanation:

… After completing the first banner, our staff recognized that the number three was missing. To correct the oversight, the number three was added to the second banner out of sequential order – it was done simply to insure the player was represented as one of the ten seniors.

So they made a banner, realized they screwed it up (by omitting the 3), made a second banner, and still found a way to screw it up (by placing the 3 out of order).

It’s not a great excuse. It doesn’t really answer the question. But to jump from criticism of that response to the allegation that this was some sort of blatant advertisement for Christianity is a leap I just don’t get.

MRFF said of the response, “One look at the banner renders the Academy’s beyond-far-fetched excuse not just implausible but patently absurd.”

The blatant lie from the Academy in its weak attempt to cover its ass yet again flies in the face of the Academy’s Honor Code, which states: “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” But I guess the Bible trumps that pesky little Honor Code, right?

MRFF even contacted a “statistics expert” who explained the odds of the 3 and 16 being placed at the end as 1 in 90, implying that this could not possibly be a coincidence.

Weinstein’s email— the one that began, “Do you REALLY have no shame”—didn’t allow for any possibility of a coincidence:

… Merely a “coincidence” or “mistake”?  MRFF knows for a FACT that it was not, and that’s why this latest, shameful, unconstitutional, Christian proselytizing stunt was timely communicated to us by those in attendance and from others within your own staff.

In closing, MRFF hereby demands that Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, copied above along with Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown, conduct an immediate, transparent, visible, and aggressive public investigation into the USAFA men’s soccer team’s Christian proselytizing scoreboard banner incident, as well as the other repugnant incidents of Christian exceptionalism cited in this email, from this past Sunday in their NCAA game against Seattle University.

MRFF further demands that all who may be found to be either directly or indirectly culpable and responsible for this latest fundamentalist Christian supremacy disgrace by USAFA, to include YOU, Lt. General Clark, be substantively, meaningfully, and expeditiously punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

Jesus… They went from noticing a 3 in a weird place to calling for heads to roll.

It’s true that the AFA has a long history of promoting Christianity. MRFF has been at the forefront of calling them out on it. In recent memory, the AFA has promoted a “Spiritual Fitness Month” that catered only to the Abrahamic religions and scheduled a mandatory training day during Yom Kippur (the AFA apologized for that one).

The Air Force Academy is pro-Christian in all the wrong ways. They need to be called out on those issues, and MRFF deserves credit for consistently pushing back. That’s why this latest act of outrage makes no sense to me.

Why would the Air Force Academy push Christianity in some weirdly subtle way—that I doubt anyone would have noticed had MRFF not brought it up—when their history suggests they’ve never been subtle when it comes to pushing Christianity?

Even if it was deliberate, who did it? Where’s the proof that this was an attempt to promote Jesus? How the hell would pushing a 3 next to a 16 do anything for the faith? Even if all the allegations are true, I don’t get the end game.

This is, at best, a strange coincidence. It’s not a five-alarm fire that requires the punishment of military officials. To act like it is—to cry wolf at the sight of a mere shadow—makes it that much less likely that people will trust MRFF the next time they say the military is promoting religion.

For what it’s worth, I raised my concerns with Weinstein over the weekend, and he said my own “jump to conclusions” was “frustrating” to him and his group. It’s frustrating to me that they think my justified caution isn’t as reasonable as the statements they’ve made accusing the Air Force Academy of proselytizing via a scoreboard banner.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.