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Religious intolerance at Air Force Academy

Allegations of intolerance.
Events 2004-JUL to 2005-MAY.

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Allegations:

During the early 2000's, in excess of 50 complaints involving allegations of religious intolerance had been recorded at the Air Force Academy (AFA) in Colorado Springs, CO -- not to be confused with the American Family Association who share the same AFA acronym. One involved a Jewish cadet who was allegedly told that the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus. Another Jew was allegedly called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet.

Michael Weinstein of Albuquerque, NM, a 1977 AFA graduate, is an outspoken critic. He doubted that the task force will resolve the problems at the Academy. He calls it a "mask force." He claims that more than 115 current and former cadets, staff and faculty have contacted him with accounts of religious bias at the academy.

His older son, 2nd Lt. Casey Weinstein, 22, graduated from the AFA in 2004. He said that evangelical Christians are: "a large vocal minority that is the 800-pound gorilla [on campus]. They blurred and crossed the line between church and state."

Curtis, his younger son, is also at the AFA. He was allegedly called a "filthy Jew" and other slurs.

Michael Weinstein told the Los Angeles Times:

"When I visited my son [Curtis] he told me he wanted us to go off base because he had something to tell me. He said, 'They are calling me a [...] Jew and that I am responsible for killing Christ.' My son told me that he was going to hit the next one who called him something....When I was at the academy, there wasn't this institutional notion that if you didn't accept Christ you would burn eternally in Hell. This is not a Jew-Christian thing, it's an evangelical versus everyone else thing. I am calling for congressional oversight and for the academy to stop trivializing the problem by calling it non-systemic. If they can't fix it and Congress won't fix it, the next thing to do is go to the federal court and file a lawsuit alleging a violation of the Constitution and civil rights." 1

Events at or about the Academy 2004-JUL to 2005-JUN:

bullet2004-JUL: Academy officials had invited Kristen Leslie -- a professor from Yale Divinity School -- and six Yale graduate students to come to Colorado Springs and observe how the staff chaplains minister to the cadets. Captain Morton and professor Leslie coauthored a two page report which was issued in 2004-JUL. On a positive note, the report complimented the chaplains for their "talent and enthusiasm." But it criticized "stridently evangelical themes" at a worship service for 600 new cadets. According to USA Today:

Leslie reported that an academy chaplain urged cadets to pray for those who didn't attend, to try to convert them and "remind them of the consequences ... [that] those not 'born again will burn in the fires of Hell'." "When we saw this kind of predominant, pervasive evangelical conservative Christian message putting itself forward as pastoral care, we noted it," Leslie said in an interview." 2

Captain Morton allegedly claims that she was pressured to deny the story. Academy spokesman Johnny Whitaker told the Colorado Springs Gazette that several chaplains have denied that anyone said anything about burning "in the fires of Hell" at the service.

bullet2005-FEB: the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America (JWV) issued a press release condemning "a series of recent anti-Semitic events at the U.S. Air Force Academy." They cited a number of incidences at the AFA:

bulletHarassment of Jewish cadets;
 
bulletA letter from one of the senior officers telling the cadets that they "are accountable first to God;"
 
bulletA banner in the football team's locker room which said: "I am a Christian first and last...I am a member of Team Jesus Christ." 3

The veterans recommended that all of the U.S. military academies "adopt as part of their curricula courses in cultural, religious and ethnic diversity to fight bigotry and hatred."

bullet2005-MAR: A 2004 survey was conducted after allegations surfaced that female cadets had been sexually assaulted by other cadets. Write-in remarks on the survey resulted in at least 55 complaints, including reports of slurs experienced by non-Christians and preferential treatment given to "born-again" Christian cadets. The Academy then implemented a 50 minute religious tolerance program for both the cadets and staff -- 4,000 personnel in total. Over 90% of the cadets identify themselves with Christianity; this compares with about 75% for the U.S. as a whole. The survey found that half had heard religious slurs and jokes on campus. The training course is called RSVP for "Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People."
 
bullet

2005-APR: The three largest academies in the U.S. Armed Forces are the Air Force Academy, West Point and the Naval Academy. Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, (AUSCS) said:

"We've gotten 50 additional complaints since all of this started. Forty-nine are about the Air Force Academy. There's one about the Naval Academy, and none about West Point. You'd think that if this was a service-wide problem, we'd be hearing a little more across the board. But it's virtually all coming from one place, the Air Force Academy."

He said the atmosphere there "becomes more poisoned" every day. 4

He did not give any data on the other two federal service academies: the merchant marine and coast guard.

AUSCS issued a report on the academy on APR-28. It documented extensive problems at the AFA, including a long list of mandatory religious observances, proselytizing by teachers and allegations by minority students that evangelical Christianity is given preferential status at the school.

Lynn said, "I think this is the most serious, military-related systemic problem I have ever seen in the decades I've been doing this work... There is a clear preference for [evangelical] Christianity at the academy, so that everyone else feels like a second-class citizen."

Some areas of concern:

bulletCadets who choose to not attend an evening chapel service were marched back to their dorms by upperclassmen in what they call a "heathen flight."

bulletTeachers openly identified themselves as born-again Christians and proselytized among the student body.

bulletPrayers invoking Jesus Christ are regularly held before routine events such as meals and award ceremonies in apparent violation of the principle of separation of church and state in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

bullet In a full page greeting at Christmas time in the AFA newspaper in 2003 contained 300 signatories -- some senior officers -- who said that they "believe that Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world." They suggested that the cadets contact them to "discuss Jesus."

bulletJewish and Seventh-Day Adventist students were not permitted to attend off-campus religious services on their Sabbath (Saturday). Christian students were allowed to attend such events on Sundays.

bulletA cadet was refused permission to attend a Freethinkers' meeting off campus. He was also denied permission to form a similar non-religious group on campus.

bulletAUSCS reported that:

"At a more basic level, we have been informed that General Weida has cultivated and reinforced an attitude -- shared by many in the Academy Chaplains' Office and, increasingly, by other members of the Academy's permanent [staff] -- that the Academy, and the Air Force in general, would be better off if populated solely by Christians. A stronger message of official preference for one particular faith is hard to imagine." 1


bulletOn APR-28, AUSCA asked "Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield and other military officials to move quickly to stop acts of religious bias at the U.S. Air Force Academy..." Lynn wrote:

"A soldier's religious beliefs or lack thereof should be irrelevant to his or her ability and willingness to defend the country. The situation at the Air Force Academy sends exactly the opposite message. The close relationship between the Academy and evangelical Christianity sends a message of exclusion to those of other faiths. It may very well dissuade some from considering the military as a career." He urged Rumsfeld "to take the steps to correct these problems and ensure that the Academy is open to cadets of all religious faiths and those with none." 5

This timeline continues in a separate essay

References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Patrick Martin, "Christian fundamentalist bigotry reigns at US Air Force Academy," World Socialist Web Site, 2005-APR-30, at: http://www.wsws.org/
  2. Patrick O'Drioscoll, "Academy critic says she was fired," USA Today, at: http://dailynews.yahoo.com/
  3. "JWV Condemns Anti-Semitism and Urges Training in Cultural Diversity at Military Academies," Jewish War Veterans, 2005-FEB-25, at: http://www.jwv.org/
  4. "Chaplain says she was fired. Claim comes amid inquiry into alleged intolerance at AFA," Associated Press, 2005-MAY-13, at: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/
  5. "Americans United Report Details Instances Of Religious Favoritism At U.S. Air Force Academy," Americans United, 2005-APR-28, at: http://www.au.org/

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Copyright © 2005 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2005-MAY-14
Latest update: 2010-NOV-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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