Is Air Force proselytizing taken seriously?

WASHINGTON, June 2 (JTA) — Republicans aren’t taking seriously allegations of proselytizing and religious intimidation at the Air Force Academy, some Democratic officials and Jewish leaders charge, and have thwarted one lawmaker’s efforts to have Congress pursue the issue. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) withdrew an amendment to the Defense Department Authorization bill late last month after several Republican lawmakers complained about it at a session of the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee. The provision called for a report to Congress on efforts to calm religious tensions at the academy, but some GOP members of Congress said the real problem was political correctness on campus. “Many of my colleagues appeared to believe that the problem is not people who are coercing one religious view over another; the problem is the people who are complaining about being coerced,” Israel told JTA. The controversy over the Colorado Springs campus comes amid an increasingly partisan tone in Washington, and as Christian conservatives are seen as gaining influence over domestic policy. Democrats question whether some Republicans are supportive of evangelical efforts at military academies, and in public life in general, or are turning a blind eye to the issue because of support they receive from Christian conservatives. Either way, they said, the congressional debate raises questions about the constitutional separation of church and state. For their part, Republicans dismiss the criticism, saying Congress should not get involved in an issue the Air Force is tackling internally. Several groups have issued reports in recent months outlining purported incidents of religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy, including evangelical comments from academy leaders and incidents in which cadets claimed they were pressured to attend church services. The Pentagon formed a panel last month to assess the school’s climate and offer ideas for change. This week, a graduating senior at the Air Force Academy sent an e-mail to 3,000 students that included quotations about Jesus. Wing Commander Nicholas Jurewicz told a local newspaper that it didn’t occur to him to remove the religious passages from his e-mail. Capt. Melinda Morton, a chaplain at the academy who said she was removed last month as an executive officer to the senior staff chaplain for complaining about religious issues on campus, said cadets aren’t getting the message that they’re government employees, and therefore must adhere to laws limiting personal expressions of faith. Jurewicz “goes into the Air Force now, demonstrating that he doesn’t have a clear understanding of separation of church and state,” she said. The issue has become more partisan in recent weeks, as Democratic efforts to bring transparency to the military academies have been thwarted by Republicans, who say political correctness should not prevent cadets from expressing their personal beliefs. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) told Jewish leaders last week that the issue should be explored more but that the community hadn’t spoken out enough about the problems at the academy. Jewish groups defended their actions. Israel had hoped Congress would get involved, and offered two amendments to that effect last month, but said he was surprised by the reaction of some Republican lawmakers when he tried to get an amendment through either the Armed Services Committee or the Rules Committee, which oversees floor amendments. During a floor hearing May 18 at the Armed Services Committee, Republican lawmakers balked at Israel’s amendments. “This amendment would bring the ACLU into the United States military,” said Rep. John Hostetler (R-Ind.). Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) said he didn’t think the legislation was necessary because the Air Force Academy was tackling the issue. “I would oppose this simply because it’s not needed,” Hefley said. Those reactions angered Israel. “I think it sends a very chilling message that when there are widespread reports of intimidation at a military institution, Congress does nothing,” he told JTA. “This is all part of a systemic pattern of right-wing extremism that not only seeks to eliminate separation of church and state but seeks to give official government support and sanction to one religious view over all the others.” Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said there were problems at the Air Force Academy, but that military leaders had taken steps to rectify them. “Meanwhile, one member of Congress appears more interested in prematurely offering press releases and trying to force congressional action rather than allowing the Air Force the opportunity to resolve the problem, as they are in the process of doing,” Brooks said. “We want solutions, not press releases by Democrats seeking headlines.” Brooks said his organization would monitor the issue and call for congressional action if the Air Force does not resolve it. Israel said he will be briefed by Air Force leaders in coming weeks, and wants assurances that if he appoints cadets to the academy, as all lawmakers can do, they won’t have to defend their religious choices. Morton said congressional engagement is necessary to make sure religious minorities feel comfortable on campus. While at the academy she participated in a new tolerance program called “Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People,” but said it wasn’t having enough effect. “They aren’t fixing the problem,” she said. “Without changes in leadership and congressional oversight, they won’t fix the problem.” JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.

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