Colorado Springs, Colo. - Two controversial attorneys representing opposite ends of the church-state separation dispute faced off at the U.S. Air Force Academy here this week in an impassioned debate over the reach of evangelical Christianity in the ranks of the military.
The debate pitted Mikey Weinstein, the New Mexico attorney who sued the Air Force Academy in 2005 over what he calls rampant proselytizing on campus, against Jay Sekulow, a Jewish convert to Christianity who works closely with televangelist Pat Robertson and represents Christian groups before the Supreme Court.
Taking place in the midst of an unseasonably fierce spring-time blizzard, the debate drew a crowd of some 300 Air Force cadets. Judging by the applause, the audience seemed noticeably more sympathetic to Sekulow, who hosts a radio talk show and heads the Robertson-affiliated American Center for Law and Justice, than to Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate.
Weinstein has garnered a host of enemies in the past two years, including what he describes as weekly death threats, while pursuing a one-man mission to sound the alarm that evangelical Christians are taking over the military and pushing it in the direction of an apocalyptic Christian crusade. In the lead-up to Tuesday night’s debate, the death threats reached a fever pitch, Weinstein said, with four coming in one week. The Air Force Academy increased security in response, and no disruptions took place.
The Brooklyn-born Sekulow has said he joined Jews for Jesus while a student at Mercer University and now describes himself as a Messianic Jew. He has argued several landmark cases on behalf of evangelicals before the Supreme Court and has often appeared on lists of the nation’s most influential lawyers in publications such as Time, American Lawyer and National Law Journal.
Addressing a sea of blue uniforms, Weinstein and Sekulow traded barbs over the extent to which military personnel, including Jews, should be permitted to express their religion when on duty. Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said he agreed with a 1986 Supreme Court ruling that an Air Force member could not wear a yarmulke on duty, as it interfered with the uniformity of dress.
“This is where we disagree,” Sekulow responded. “I think he should have been able to wear the yarmulke.”
From the audience, a reporter overheard loud murmurs of dissatisfaction over Weinstein’s portrayal of evangelical Christians. “That’s offensive,” one cadet whispered to another, when Weinstein remarked that the issue was not a “warm, cuddly Jewish or Jesus teddy bear.” “He says he’s not anti-Christian, but he is,” the cadet said. “He’s anti-evangelical.”
Despite their differences, Weinstein and Sekulow also exchanged pleasantries and found areas of common ground. ‘I know he’s a messianic Jew,” Weinstein said during the debate, “but he’s a nice Jewish boy. I can tell.”