Cadets say religious bias growing at Air Force Academy

Complaints focus on power wielded by evangelical Christians

Published: Wednesday, April 20 2005 9:09 a.m. MDT

Air Force Academy Vice Commandant Col. Debra Gray, left, attends newly required class on religious tolerance at Colorado Springs school.

Ed Andrieski, Associated Press

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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Less than two years after it was plunged into a rape scandal, the Air Force Academy is scrambling to address complaints that evangelical Christians wield so much influence at the school that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment have become pervasive.

There have been 55 complaints of religious discrimination at the academy in the past four years, including cases in which a Jewish cadet was told the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus and another was called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet.

The 4,300-student school recently started requiring staff members and cadets to take a 50-minute religious-tolerance class.

"There are things that have happened that have been inappropriate. And they have been addressed and resolved," said Col. Michael Whittington, the academy's chief chaplain.

More than 90 percent of the cadets identify themselves as Christian. A cadet survey in 2003 found that half had heard religious slurs and jokes, and that many non-Christians believed Christians get special treatment.

"There were people walking up to someone and basically they would get in a conversation and it would end with, 'If you don't believe what I believe you are going to hell,' " Vice Commandant Col. Debra Gray said.

Critics of the academy say the sometimes-public endorsement of Christianity by high-ranking staff has contributed to a climate of fear and violates the constitutional separation of church and state at a taxpayer-supported school whose mission is to produce Air Force leaders.

They also say academy leaders are desperate to avoid the sort of uproar that came with the 2003 scandal in which dozens of women said their complaints of sexual assault were ignored.

"They are deliberately trivializing the problem so that we don't have another situation the magnitude of the sex assault scandal. It is inextricably intertwined in every aspect of the academy," said Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, N.M., a 1977 graduate who has sent two sons to the school. He said the younger, Curtis, has been called a "filthy Jew" many times.

The superintendent, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, conceded there was a problem during a recent meeting of the Board of Visitors, the civilian group that oversees the academy.

The board chairman, former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, warned Rosa that changing things could prove complicated. He said evangelical Christians "do not check their religion at the door."

Other critics point to a series of incidents, including:

  • The Air Force is investigating a complaint from an atheist cadet who says the school is "systematically biased against any cadet that does not overtly espouse Christianity."

  • The official academy newspaper runs a Christmas ad every year praising Jesus and declaring him the only savior. Some 200 academy staff members, including some department heads, signed it. Whittington noted the ad was not published last December.

  • The academy commandant, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, a born-again Christian, said in a statement to cadets in June 2003 that their first responsibility is to their God. He also strongly endorsed National Prayer Day that year. School spokesman Johnny Whitaker said Weida now runs his messages by several other commanders.

  • Some officer commission ceremonies were held at off-campus churches. In a letter dated April 6, Weida said the ceremonies would be held on campus from now on.

Rosa and other academy leaders say some among the large number of Christian cadets — nearly 2,600 are Protestant and some 1,300 are Roman Catholic — may not realize that evangelism is unwelcome among their fellow students. The rest of the corps includes 121 Mormons, 44 Jews, 19 Buddhists and a few Muslims, Hindus and others. There are 15 chaplains and one rabbi.

Rosa himself intervened when Christian cadets began promoting "The Passion," Mel Gibson's movie about the crucifixion of Christ. He told cadets they should not use government e-mail or other facilities to promote their personal agendas.

Two of the nation's most influential evangelical Christian groups, Focus on the Family and New Life Church, are headquartered in nearby Colorado Springs. Tom Minnery, an official at Focus on the Family, disputed claims that evangelical Christians are pushing an agenda at the academy.

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