By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 4, 2005
The Air Force said yesterday it is creating a task force to address the religious climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy, following allegations that its faculty and staff have pressured cadets to convert to evangelical Christianity.
The acting secretary of the Air Force, Michael L. Dominguez, ordered the task force to make a preliminary assessment by May 23 of the religious atmosphere on the Colorado Springs campus and its "relevance . . . to the entire Air Force." He named Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel, to head the effort.
The investigation is the second major probe of the academy in two years. In 2003, dozens of former female cadets came forward to say they had been sexually assaulted at the academy, prompting an overhaul of its policies toward women.
Alumni also have played a key role in raising the complaints of religious intolerance. Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein, a White House attorney in the Reagan administration who graduated from the academy in 1977 and has sent two sons there, said yesterday that "a colossal failure of leadership is resulting in a constitutional train wreck" at the school.
Last week, the Washington-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued a 14-page report charging that there is "systematic and pervasive religious bias and intolerance at the highest levels of the Academy command structure."
The report said that during basic training, cadets who declined to go to chapel after dinner were organized into a "Heathen Flight" and marched back to their dormitories. It said the Air Force's "Chaplain of the Year" urged cadets to proselytize among their classmates or "burn in the fires of hell"; that mandatory cadet meetings often began with explicitly Christian prayers; and that numerous faculty members introduced themselves to their classes as born-again Christians and encouraged students to become born again during the term.
Weinstein, in a telephone interview from his home in Albuquerque, said the Americans United report was "spot on."
"The place is being held hostage in a vise grip by evangelical Christians, and people are terrified to come forward," he said. While welcoming the creation of the task force, Weinstein said it was not yet clear who would be appointed to it.
"We'll find out in a few days whether it's a task force or a mask force," he said.
In a statement yesterday, the Air Force said it discovered "perceptions of religious bias" during a 2004 survey in which some cadets complained that evangelical Christians were pressuring Jews and other Christians. The statement said the Air Force had since made "considerable efforts" to address the situation, including launching a training program called RSVP, for Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People.