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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'Heathens' not welcome at U.S. Air Force Academy

'Heathens' not welcome at U.S. Air Force Academy

In late April the Washingtonbased Americans United for Separation of Church and State,

a longtime religious watchdog group, called the nation's attention to numerous incidents

of religious bias and the official promotion of fundamentalist Christianity at the

Colorado Springs, Colorado-based United States Air Force Academy - a problem that

apparently has been brewing for quite some time.

Unlike other recent scandals at U.S. military academies involving cadets cheating,

the violation of the honor code, and cases of sexual harassment and rape - which

were often written off as the behaviour of a few errant cadets - attorneys for Americans

United found that at the Air Force Academy there was "systematic and pervasive

religious bias and intolerance at the highest levels of the academy command structure."

This included pressuring cadets to undertake religious instruction and proselytizing

by faculty members in the classroom. In one instance, cadets who declined to attend

chapel after dinner were marched back to their dormitories by upperclass cadet staff

in what was dubbed a "Heathen Flight".

The immediate reaction was somewhat predictable: Academy officials circled the wagons,

while evangelical Christians claimed to be victims of an orchestrated campaign against

them, or dismissed the incidents as the product of overzealous youth.

An official with Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family - the hometown multi-million

dollar, multi-media, and politically powerful ministry - claimed evangelical Christians

were victims of "a witch hunt."

Jerry White, president emeritus of the Navigators and a former academy instructor,

denied that religious bias was "a pervasive or major problem." In an interview

with the Charlotte Observer, White chalked it up to the natural over-exuberance of

youth, as well as "a bit of [youthful] intolerance."

However, now that the Academy's superintendent has admitted that religious intolerance

is a deeply rooted problem that will take years to correct, the Christian right's

rationales no longer hold water.

According to Americans United's well-documented 14-page report, the problem is not

that evangelicals haven't been able to speak about their religious beliefs; the problem

is that cadets who aren't evangelical Christians, and have no interest in becoming

one, were dive-bombed by religious propaganda intended to convert them to the faith.

In 2004, when Mel Gibson's controversial movie "The Passion of the Christ"

was about to be released, Cadet First Class Casey Weinstein, a Jewish graduate of

the Air Force Academy, discovered that Gibson backers had placed promotional leaflets

advertising the film on the breakfast plates of the school's nearly 4,000 cadets.

"As the cadets ate, images from the film were flashed on cafeteria screens used

for official academy messages," the Charlotte Observer recently reported. In

the next few days, more flyers would appear at breakfast and in addition, "mass

e-mail messages" were sent recommending that cadets "attend special screenings

of the film."

Weinstein is the son of Mikey Weinstein, an attorney and academy graduate who over

the years had expressed his consternation over the Academy's religious practices.

In an opinion piece published by the Colorado Springs Gazette, John J. Michels Jr.,

an Academy graduate and former military attorney who now works in the corporate world,

suggested that the incidents of bias could not have happened without the knowledge

of Academy officials.

"Large crucifixes being erected in the cadet area outside of the chapel, fliers

placed under doors on Easter morning celebrating the reincarnation of Jesus, and

video projections of Bible verses on screens in the dining hall during mandatory

meal formations do not occur without the blessing (figuratively, and perhaps literally)

of the commander," he wrote.

Officials at the Academy were unprepared to deal with the sudden media scrutiny:

In mid-May, the Associated Press reported that shortly after a Pentagon task force

assigned to investigate the charges arrived at the Academy, the No. 2 chaplain claimed

that "she was fired by her boss for speaking up about religious intolerance

among cadets and staff, including allegations that evangelical Christians wield too

much influence."

Capt. Melinda Morton, a Lutheran, said she "was pressured to deny a report by

Yale Divinity School professor Kristen Leslie that a chaplain told 600 cadets during

basic training last year to go back to their tents and tell their fellow cadets that

those who are not born again will burn in the fires of hell."

In an early June meeting of the Anti-Defamation League's executive committee in Denver,

Lt. Gen. John Rosa Jr., the Air Force Academy's superintendent, admitted that the

campus had been inundated by cadets bent on evangelical proselytizing, and acknowledged

that it might take several years to root the problem out.

No one is suggesting that evangelicals at the Academy surrender their religious beliefs.

"Sharing your faith with another is not a problem," said Rev. Barry Lynn,

the executive director of Americans United. "But in a hierarchy, when highly

placed individuals manipulate a chain-of-command structure to pressure others to

adopt their faith, that is a problem."

Meanwhile, Jennifer Stephens, an Air Force spokesperson at the Pentagon, told the

Charlotte Observer that the Pentagon had "not seen any evidence of this being

an issue throughout the Air Force."

She acknowledged that the Americans United report provided "a good opportunity

to take a look at the policies, the procedures, and the religious climate at the

Academy."

On May 27, a new Air Force policy statement was issued. "Senior leaders, commanders

and supervisors at every level must be particularly sensitive to the fact that subordinates

can consider your public expressions of belief systems coercive," said the statement.

"Using your place at the podium as a platform for your personal beliefs can

be perceived as misuse of office."

However, a week later, Wing Commander Nicholas Jurewicz sent an e-mail to thousands

of fellow cadets that listed "a number of quotations including several about

Jesus. He also included a Bible verse, "Bear one another's burdens, and so you

will fulfill the law of Christ," the Associated Press reported. (IPS)

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