Allegations of Religious Intolerance Lead to Probe of Air Force Academy

The Pentagon is investigating allegations that staff and cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy are creating a climate that is unwelcoming to Jews and other religious minorities. A report late last month by Americans United for Separation of Church and State — which detailed reported evangelical comments from academy leaders and incidents in which cadets claimed they were pressured to attend church services — prompted the Defense Department to create a task force to assess the school’s climate and offer ideas for changes within the next few weeks.

The new accusations come just months after the Colorado Springs academy instituted a program aimed at teaching tolerance to cadets and staff.

The report said Jews and others who celebrate the Sabbath on Saturdays were not granted special passes to leave academy grounds, while those who sought passes for Sunday services got them.

Some other charges involve slurs against Jewish cadets, including one in which a Jewish cadet reportedly was told the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus.

“Religious tolerance issues have been around for a long time in some form or another,” Bruce DeBoskey, the Anti-Defamation League’s Mountain States regional director, said of the academy. “There’s always been a sense by some people that the atmosphere there is not particularly inclusive.”

Military academies are government operations and must follow the government’s strict separation of church and state, said Barry Lynn, Americans United’s executive director.

“They have a responsibility to make sure there is nothing that constitutes a pattern of harassment against people of minority religious faiths or no religious faith,” Lynn said.

But Lynn and DeBoskey said the concern goes beyond that.

“The Air Force Academy trains the officers of tomorrow,” DeBoskey said. “If they are being taught it’s OK to use their power to proselytize, the military will not be a welcoming place and possibly will pose constitutional problems.”

In a separate interview, Lynn said it’s especially important for the military to be a religiously tolerant place as it fights a war against militant Islam.

“You don’t want the Islamic world to think it’s a mission of the Air Force to convert religious minorities,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous time for this attitude to become part of the story.”

A spokesman for the academy, Meade Warthen, said the Defense Department task force was scheduled to come to view the campus on Tuesday, and likely would issue a report to the acting secretary of the Air Force by month’s end.

Warthen said the school had no comment beyond supporting the task force’s work.

“We’re going to allow them to conduct it before we provide any specific information,” he said.

The Air Force Academy has been under fire in recent years, with nearly 150 female cadets claiming they suffered sexual assaults.

DeBosky said he has heard complaints of evangelical commentary by Air Force leaders and taunts from cadets. In addition, DeBosky said some school events have been planned with no regard to Jewish holidays.

The Air Force Academy has approximately 57 Jews out of 4,200 cadets, according to October 2004 figures from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which does not have a branch at the academy.

The ADL has offered the academy its assistance on diversity and religious tolerance training, similar to the programs the ADL conducts for law enforcement personnel. The group says it hasn’t yet received an answer to its offer.

In March, after survey results last year showed religious bias on campus, the academy began a program called “Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People.” The program was developed with help from Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a former U.S. Navy chaplain.

Resnicoff told JTA in an e-mail that he preferred not to comment on the issue, “other than to say that I know from firsthand conversations that it is not humanly possible” for Air Force personnel “to be taking this matter any more seriously than they are.”

But Lynn said the program has not been working, and time allotted for it has been cut back from the original plans. He said his organization spoke with 15 cadets for its report, and has received more than 50 calls from current and former students since the report was released.

Lynn said there have been few similar reports about the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Jewish leaders have praised both schools for their religious diversity and tolerance.

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