A Fighter Pilot's Fight For Her Faith

July 17, 2002

My political science courses thrive on controversy. Each semester in PSC 2302, Survey of Constitutional Development, we cover free speech, the death penalty, prayer in school and affirmative action. But there's often one issue or current event that stands above the others. 
In fall 2000, it was the presidential election. In spring 2001, it was capital punishment. That April, Sister Helen Prejean, staunch opponent of the death penalty and author of Dead Man Walking, spoke at Baylor. My students listened to her, analyzed the relevant Supreme Court cases in class and came to my house for dinner and to watch the movie based on her book. With the impending execution of Timothy McVeigh, I thought the connection between the real world and our class discussions couldn't get any better. I was wrong.
In the spring 2002 semester, we focused on Lt. Col. Martha McSally, the highest-ranking female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force and the first American woman in uniform to fly a combat mission. During 2000-2001, she was stationed at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. United States military policy at that time required all servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear the Muslim abaya - a black head-to-toe robe and head scarf -- when they went off base. While off base, they also had to be accompanied by a man and only could ride in the back seat of a vehicle. These regulations applied to all women military personnel, but not to military wives or other female federal employees. Male military personnel neither were required nor permitted to wear Muslim clothing. 
For McSally, a devout Christian, wearing the abaya would have been disingenuous to her faith. She believes wearing the garb sends the message that she adheres to Muslim beliefs, including the doctrine that women are subservient to men. She believes this so strongly that in the 13 months she was stationed in Saudi Arabia, she never went off base for leisure. 
McSally began trying to change the policy soon after its implementation following Desert Storm. For seven years, she pleaded her case from the inside. Many of her superiors claimed it was a "force protection" issue, i.e., that the rule was made to protect U.S. women in uniform. McSally pointed out that wearing the abaya did not make American women blend in because American men with short hair and Western clothes were required to escort the U.S. women when they were off base. 
In December 2001, McSally sued the Defense Department for violations of the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment. She also asserted a violation of the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause because she believes there is no exceedingly persuasive justification to force women, and not men, to abide by these policies. Her case also involves a charge of retaliation because after she challenged the regulations, she received a less-than-favorable performance review for the first time in her exemplary military career. 
A month after McSally filed her suit, the Pentagon announced that the policies no longer would be mandatory but "strongly encouraged." It then filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but McSally opposed the motion. She argues that, in reality, "strong encouragement" almost is the equivalent of an order.
Because I am a Christian, a woman and a lawyer, I was particularly drawn to McSally's story. I also thought this case was the perfect vehicle to teach my students about the Supreme Court's positions on religious liberty and gender equity. It reaffirmed my belief that the best textbooks for this class often are a subscription to the newspaper and a copy of the Constitution.
Class discussions about McSally's case were informed and heated throughout the semester. One student suggested, "This isn't the time to file a lawsuit against the military. Shouldn't we speak with one voice when we're at war?" Another student responded, "Was it right for her to fly combat missions so that Afghan women could shed their burquas (a type of head covering) if, upon landing her jet, she had to don virtually the same covering if she wanted to go off base to run an errand?"
As our conversations intensified, I decided to try contacting McSally. What better way to engage students than to have them to speak with her? Although I knew it was a long shot -- she's been interviewed by The New York Times, Washington Post, the "Today" show and National Public Radio -- I had to try. To my great delight, she agreed.
Last March, McSally spoke to my political science class via conference call. Not surprisingly, my articulate students seized the opportunity. Though their tone was respectful, they asked hard questions: Would she feel responsible if the military changed its policy and then a woman was hurt? Wasn't she violating military protocol by going "outside the system" to solve an internal grievance?
McSally answered each question with grace, humor and detail. She told us that although she'd been wearing the Air Force uniform for 18 years and that she loved flying fighter planes, her belief in Christ required her to take this stand. If she wouldn't stand up for other women who believed they were betraying their faith by wearing the abaya, who would?
I came away from the call dazed and proud. I was proud of my students for synthesizing the issues and asking such good questions and proud that a Christian like McSally represented my country. She put everything the world values on the line in order to live out her faith. Whether we agreed with her position or not, no one could doubt the sincerity of her religious convictions. As one student later wrote her, "You have inspired me -- as a Christian, a woman and an American." Well said.

Olson is assistant dean for academics in the College of Arts and Sciences, part-time lecturer in political science.