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Religious Freedom Compromised at Air Force Academy, Cadets Say

June 23, 2005
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Jewish cadets at the Air Force Academy feel pressure to choose their military duties over their religion, and believe the school is insensitive to their needs because of an overtly Christian atmosphere, a report said. The comments, taken from focus groups last month and included as part of a report released by the military on the religious climate at the Colorado Springs, Colo., campus, suggest that some Jewish students are uncomfortable at the academy because of what they see as an evangelical Christian culture.

The Jewish students interviewed for the report also said the burden is squarely on them to seek out religious accommodations, and that the procedures to do so are often cumbersome.

“Freedom of religion does not exist if you are not a Christian,” one Jewish cadet said, according to the report.

The report was released Wednesday after numerous complaints of religious intolerance and proselytizing at the school. The debate has also moved to the halls of Congress, where Democratic lawmakers have faced strong opposition to attempts to seek reform at the academy.

The report was welcomed by Reps. Steven Israel (D-N.Y.) and Lois Capps (D-Calif.), who have complained in recent weeks about religious intolerance at the school. But the lawmakers said they remain concerned the Air Force is not doing enough on the issue.

“We need performance standards, we need benchmarks, we need accountability,” Israel said at a news conference.

The report’s author, Lt. Gen. Robert Brady, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, acknowledged the perception of religious intolerance on campus, but suggested it came more from a lack of awareness of appropriate expressions of faith and inadequate training than overt religious discrimination or anti-Semitism.

“I think there were cases where people have said some things, perhaps from a lectern, that were overreaching, forgetting their position, that put cadets, perhaps, in an untenable position in terms of, ‘Gee, am I going to pass Physics 101 if I don’t agree with this guy?’ ” Brady said.

Brady also said he believed the situation has improved in recent years.

The report maps nine recommendations for change, including training for faculty and staff and increased access to kosher meals. All of the recommendations were accepted by Michael Dominguez, the acting secretary of the Air Force.

“We need to understand better the role of religion and culture more broadly on the way people think and act and make decisions,” Brady said. “That’s important for us in a diverse force.”

In addition, a new position, vice superintendent of the academy, was created. Maj. Gen. Irving Halter Jr. is charged with improving religious tolerance at the school.

For its part, the Anti-Defamation League called the report encouraging, particularly the recommendations for reform.

“If implemented effectively, such programs could provide a model for the entire U.S. military,” the group said in a statement.

Few of the reported incidents directly involved Jews. The academy’s football coach reportedly placed a “Team Jesus” banner in the locker room last year, and advertisements for the movie “The Passion of the Christ” were circulated around campus.

Cadets also complained about the term “Heathen Flight,” used as slang to describe the march back to dorms with other cadets who did not attend worship services.

The Jewish cadets, who were interviewed separately from Christians and other religious minorities, expressed overall positive views on the academy, but acknowledged problems with other cadets, faculty, some leadership officials and several coaches.

They complained of prayers before mandatory events and an e-mail, sent by Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, the school’s commandant of cadets, promoting National Prayer Day in 2003.

A separate report concluded Weida’s message “did not violate any public standard.”

They also detailed what was deemed a “cumbersome pass procedure” to attend religious services, and suggested it was accompanied by pressure from cadet leadership to make “the right choice” and choose participation in academy activities over religious events.

Dining facilities were deemed inadequate for kosher dietary needs by the Jewish cadets. One cadet, who kept kosher, was given a refrigerator in his room because the dining hall was insufficient.

Faculty members also acknowledged that some of the academy’s leadership is “extraordinarily aggressive” in their expressions of faith, and hinted at a climate in which religious people promote and hire other devout people.

The Jewish cadets also said they believed Lt. Gen. John Rosa, the academy’s superintendent, was making a sincere effort to improve the school. Rosa is expected to leave soon to become president of The Citadel.

Israel and other Democratic lawmakers have tried to seek reforms through congressional action, but have faced strong opposition from Republicans.

On Monday, Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) said Democrats were “denigrating and demonizing Christians” for seeking an amendment on the issue. Hostettler later withdrew his remarks.

Capt. MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran chaplain at the academy, resigned from the military this week. Morton’s attorney told The New York Times that she believed it would be difficult to continue at the school because of her outspokenness on the issue.

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