As directed by the Academy board, mandatory chapel service was considered essential to development of moral leadership for cadets. Attendance at weekly Sabbath/Sunday Chapel or church services of the cadet’s choice was mandatory for all cadets except First Classmen. Second, third, and Fourth Classmen had the option of attending services at the Cadet Chapel, the Community Center Chapel, or at any house of worship on the Command Chaplain’s list of “on limits” churches in the Pikes Peak Region.
Although the mandatory chapel service controversy has been covered since 1969 under the Command chaplain, it should be emphasized that the mandatory chapel service policy is not a chaplain policy or directive. “As a matter of research fact,…USAFAR 265-1 which established the Academy Chaplain Program makes no mention of any such requirement; nor does the AFCWM 265-1 make any such stipulation. The mandatory chapel policy is mentioned in AFCWM 265-1, para 3, by reference to AFCR 522-3 and [AFCR] 522-7.”
On 30 June 1972, the U. S. Court of Appeals ended 150 years of military tradition when it ruled that compulsory chapel attendance at the three United States service academies was unconstitutional. The suit was originally brought early in 1969 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of all the cadets and midshipmen at the service academies.
“In a 2-1 decision, the court held that…required attendance at the…[service academies] violates the First Amendment prohibition against establishment of religion.” Chief Judge David L. Bazelon and Judge Harold Leventhal of the U. S. Court of Appeals voted to reverse U. S. District Court Judge Howard F. Corcoran, who had originally “upheld the constitutionality of chapel requirement, holding that there is a crucial distinction between ‘attendance’ at religious services and ‘worship’ at those services. Requiring attendance is not an establishment of religion, Corcoran ruled.”
In Judge Bazelon’s written opinion, he found that “violations of the chapel requirement ‘are punished by reprimands, demerits, punishment marching tours, confinements to quarters and possible expulsion.’” He quoted liberally from the writings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and noted that “individual freedom may not be sacrificed to military interests to the point that constitutional rights are abolished.”
Judge George E. MacKinnon, in his dissent said that Corcoran’s ruling should have been sustained. “In his dissent, MacKinnon wrote, ‘…it is clear that the First Amendment is not fully applicable in the armed forces.’ The majority opinions, he said, are based on an absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment.”
The Solicitor General appealed the case to the U. S. Supreme Court, which would eventually determine whether the case should be heard by that body.
As noted in previous histories, the service academies' mandatory chapel service had been challenged in the courts.
In a petition filed with the U. S. Supreme Court, the Defense and Justice Departments asked the court "to uphold compulsory chapel services at the Army, Navy and Air Force Academies as essential for instilling 'awareness of our moral and religious heritage' in the military commanders of the future.
A divided lower court had ruled previously, on 30 June 1972, that "compelling church attendance was as much a violation of the First Amendment as indoctrinating servicemen with religious precepts." In the petition seeking reversal, Solicitor Erwin N. Griswold denied that "forced chapel attendance was an unconstitutional 'establishment of religion,'" and stated that "the chapel services were primarily educational and were authorized under the power to regulate the nation's military forces."
On 18 December the long controversy came to an abrupt end when the Supreme Court in a brief order without comment upheld the decision of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. By refusing to review the appeals court decision, the Supreme Court ended a practice of over 150 years standing that began at West Point.
In reply to a query as to the Academy's reaction to the Supreme Court's dismissal of the government's appeal upholding mandatory chapel attendance, General Clark stated: "The Air Force Academy will promptly respond to the decision of the courts. In view of the current chapel policy this development will impose no traumatic change in current cadet activities..."
Effective upon their return from Christmas leave, all cadets were free to decide whether they would attend religious services. Statistics indicated a drop in attendance of approximately one-third at formal chapel services. Participation in other informal meetings and religious activities remained unchanged.
– From Offical USAFA History