New York Times
June 23, 2005
WASHINGTON, June 22 - An Air Force panel sent to investigate the religious climate at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs found evidence that officers and faculty members periodically used their positions to promote their Christian beliefs and failed to accommodate the religious needs of non-Christian cadets, its leader said Wednesday.
But the panel said it had found no "overt religious discrimination" - only "insensitivity" - and praised the academy leadership for working aggressively to confront religious problems in the last two years.
Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady of the Air Force, who led the 16-member group, said in a news conference at the Pentagon that the academy and the Air Force as a whole were struggling to define the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable religious expression in a government institution, a reflection, he said, of a debate under way across the country.
"We believe that people were doing things that I think were inappropriate," General Brady said. "They had the best intentions toward the cadets. I think in some cases they were wrong."
He said his panel had referred seven cases of questionable behavior to the Air Force for further investigation but declined to elaborate.
Among the incidents highlighted in the report were fliers that advertised a screening of "The Passion of the Christ" at every seat in the dining hall, more than 250 people at the academy signing an annual Christmas message in the base newspaper that said that "Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world" and an atheist student who was forbidden to organize a club for "Freethinkers."
The academy has 19 clubs for religious groups. Many of the clubs and educational programs are led by outsiders, some affiliated with ministries in Colorado Springs, the headquarters for many evangelical Christian organizations. The report recommended that the academy supervise those programs more closely because of complaints that some guest speakers had violated Air Force standards of religious respect.
The group found that several incidents widely covered by news organizations were overblown. The report said a chaplain who reportedly exhorted cadets in a worship service to tell their classmates to accept Christ or "burn in hell" was merely using language "not uncommon" for his Pentecostal denomination.
The academy is a highly selective institution that grooms 18- to 22-year-old cadets for careers as Air Force officers. The report states that of the 4,400 cadets surveyed last year, 85 percent were Christian, 2 percent were atheists , 1.5 percent were Jewish, 0.3 percent were Hindu, 0.4 percent were Muslim, and 9.3 percent gave no preference or identified themselves as "other."
The acting secretary of the Air Force, Michael L. Dominguez, appointed the panel on May 2 after more than a year of complaints about religious coercion.
The complaints culminated with a report sent to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State that documented accusations of coercion.
A chaplain at the academy, Capt. Melinda Morton, made public last month accusations that the religious problem at the academy was "pervasive."
Captain Morton had been on a team asked to draw up a program to promote religious tolerance. On Tuesday, she resigned from the Air Force saying that she did not believe her superiors genuinely wanted her to stay on to help resolve the problem.
The academy superintendent, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, speaking to reporters in Colorado Springs, compared the struggles over religion at the institution with an airplane crash.
"When you go back, everything becomes very obvious," General Rosa said. "But while you are flying the airplane, the kind of things that lead up to the accident are not very obvious."
General Rosa, who will leave this year to head the Citadel, the military college in Charleston, S.C., said the most recent cadet survey indicated that 92 percent of Christian cadets believed that the religious climate on the campus was acceptable, with 50 percent of non-Christians agreeing.
The commandant of cadets, Brig. Gen. Johnny A. Weida, came in for particular scrutiny by panel. He sent an academywide e-mail message to announce the National Day of Prayer, instructed cadets that they were "accountable to their God" and invented a call-and-response chant with the cadets that went, "Jesus ... Rocks."
An inspector general's report attached to the task force findings indicated that General Weida's case was among the seven referred to the Air Force command. The inspector general found no wrongdoing or misconduct by General Weida on six points. But it said that one problem, "the proselytization of non-Christian cadets," continued to be investigated.
General Weida issued a statement on Wednesday saying the academy had progressed in improving cadet life.
"If I could do the last two years over again with the benefit of hindsight," he said, "there are some things I would do differently."
The longtime head football coach, Fisher DeBerry, had until Wednesday responded defiantly in public to warnings from Air Force commanders that he had gone too far in linking his team to his Christian beliefs, praying with them in the locker room to the "Master Coach," and posting a banner saying "Team Jesus."
On Wednesday, he issued a statement saying that those actions had "crossed the line of acceptable practices."
Among the recommendations are that commanders should schedule operations with an eye to accommodating diverse religious holidays and rituals and develop curriculum to increase awareness and respect of different religious beliefs.
General Brady said the recommendations should apply to the entire Air Force, because many military installations quite likely had similar problems.
The reaction to the report was mixed.
"This is a decent start on a problem that must be remedied," Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said. "The good news is that the report makes it clear to anyone who reads it that this is a real problem, not some imagined witch hunt."
Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he wanted President Bush to create a commission on religion in the military.
"They go to excruciating pains to attempt to acknowledge a problem, but not acknowledge it too much," Mr. Israel said of the task force. "Is it a whitewash? No. But it does resemble milquetoast."
Focus on the Family, an evangelical ministry in Colorado Springs that had called criticism of the academy unjustified, said in a statement, "We fervently hope that this ridiculous bias of a few against the religion of a majority - Christianity - will now cease."