Religious Insensitivity Cited at Air Force Academy
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 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.”
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.”
Air Force investigators merely scratched the surface in their report about alleged religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy, two lawmakers said in calling for stricter congressional oversight of the military school. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., and Lois Capps, D-Calif., said the problems are deeper than investigators indicate. They urged the Air Force to tighten compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws, and said Congress should use its authority to make sure that happens. “Congressional oversight is necessary to ensure the appropriate changes are made at the academy,” Capps said. “We must continue to hold the Air Force’s feet to the fire.” Capps and Israel have pushed for investigations into accusations of religious intolerance at the academy and called on Congress to calm religious tensions at the 4,300-student school near Colorado Springs, Colo.
A Pentagon investigation into complaints that evangelical Christians at the academy have bullied Jews and cadets of other faiths found no overt discrimination, but cited a degree of “insensitivity.” “There is a lack of awareness on the part of some faculty and staff, and perhaps some senior cadets, as to what constitutes appropriate expressions of faith,” said Lt. Gen. Roger Brady, Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel.
But at a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday, Israel and Capps said the report backed up their belief that the climate at the academy and in the military needs to be fixed. They said investigators offered excuses for cadets, faculty and staff instead of acknowledging there is a “pervasive and coercive religious environment.” “It is not a whitewash, but it does resemble a milquetoast,” Israel said.
It sounds to me like the Academy is fixing the problem; certainly congressional involvement at this stage seems unwarranted. Several of the incidents reported are clearly over the line but they fall far short of harrassment.
The Rocky Mountain News editorial page gets it about right:
AFA report: critical but fair
The Air Force’s impressive report on the religious climate at its academy near Colorado Springs will disappoint both extremes of the polarized debate surrounding public expressions of faith. Those who have argued that the academy is in the grip of evangelical zealots will not see a great deal to vindicate their thesis in the report. Similarly, those who dismiss any concern regarding religious intolerance as part of a “long war on Christianity,” to quote one particularly ill-informed Indiana congressman, will discover that their assessment has been rejected, too.
At the same time, the report demystifies a number of the more breathless claims regarding religious intolerance. It notes that a “widely reported” figure of 55 complaints was in fact “a collection of observations and events reported by about 13 people” over four years. It properly balks at endorsing a Yale Divinity School team’s apparent view that evangelical chaplains should refrain from expressing their religious views even in voluntary Protestant services. And it concludes that the nickname “heathen flight” for cadets who preferred to march back to their dorms during basic training rather than go to religious services, “while clearly inappropriate,” was developed by cadets and generally treated as a joke.
These young men and women are incredibly bright. They’re also being trained for the profession of arms. If they can’t handle some good natured ribbing, they’re in the wrong place. Chaplains and football coaches aren’t the command staff and should have great latitude in how they motivate their charges. The commandant and the professoriate, on the other hand, need to realize that they are seen to be representing the Academy itself and be more thoughtful. My strong suspicion is that they will be from now on.