By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 1, 2005
COLORADO SPRINGS -- A student officer approaches a group of underclass students in a classroom at the Air Force Academy and reminds the younger students that they must all attend a general formation of the school's cadet corps Friday evening. It looks like an ordinary, casual campus reminder -- but the exchange quickly flares into a tense religious standoff.
"Sir, that doesn't work for me," a female cadet replies. "I have worship services Friday night." The student officer, sensing a challenge to his rank, turns angry. "You have to be there," he snaps. "No more excuses!"
At that uncomfortable moment, the video screen goes blank and Lt. Col. Vicki J. Rast starts explaining what went wrong.
"We're not seeing much sensitivity there, are we?" Rast tells an audience of students, teachers and academy staff. "The guy seems to think that a Jew who wants to go to Friday night services is making excuses. That's not acceptable. And the woman, let's be frank, could have found a better way to handle this than to challenge her superior in public."
Prowling the classroom in her green camouflage fatigues, Rast uses that simulated exchange between cadets in the training video to press home, again and again, a message that is now an essential part of the curriculum here on the sprawling campus at the base of snow-capped Pike's Peak.
"We have to respect every individual's religious beliefs," Rast declares. "We may not approve or agree with them, but we will respect their right to believe what they choose."
All spring, a corps of chaplains, law professors and senior officers such as Rast -- she holds the new position of "Chief, Climate and Culture" -- have been running classes designed to impart the principles of religious tolerance and universal respect. The training program, known as RSVP, for "Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People," is required not only for the 4,000 cadets but also for everyone else, military and civilian, at the academy.
The RSVP program began this year after a series of accusations that evangelical Christians on the faculty and in the corps of cadets were using the authority structure at the military school to win converts and to punish those who did not share evangelical beliefs. Some cadets who chose to study rather than attend Christian chapel after dinner were called "heathens."
A study team from Yale Divinity School reported that religious pressure was particularly intense during basic cadet training, the boot camp each summer during which newly arrived high school graduates are indoctrinated into military life. "The whole camp is about authority and discipline," noted Yale professor Kristen Leslie. "And in that setting, the very Christian, evangelical voice was just dominating."
Under increasing criticism, the Air Force dispatched a task force to the academy last month to study the problem. After the task force reported its findings to the brass in Washington, the Air Force chief of staff sent a notice to all installations worldwide. "Commanders must be alert to the issue of religious respect throughout our Air Force," Gen. John P. Jumper's notice said.
Academy officials could not say whether the task force would issue a public report on its findings. But the issue of religious tolerance at the academy has become a public concern for the Air Force -- at the same time the school is shadowed by an earlier scandal in which female cadets said sexual harassment was common on campus but ignored by the school's administrators.
"It's an institution with clear lines of authority," noted Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), one of five dozen members of Congress who wrote acting Air Force Secretary Michael L. Dominguez demanding remedial action. "Well, if a person in authority over you says you are going to burn in hell unless you convert, that carries a lot of weight with a young cadet."
Concerns about religious intolerance at the academy initially emerged as part of the official response to the sexual harassment problem. Study teams looking into the academy's structure of pastoral care for cadets heard repeated stories of favoritism toward evangelical cadets and faculty members, and discrimination against those of other faiths.
Chaplains, legal officers and Rast's Climate and Culture office then created the RSVP program, which will be required for all students and employees at the academy.
At an RSVP session last month, Rast was joined by Air Force Maj. Henry Close, an Orthodox priest, and by Howard Eggers, who teaches law courses to the cadets. The three emphasized that religious tolerance is not only a matter of principle but is also essential to help the service achieve its mission. "We know that a lack of respect for the whole range of religious beliefs prevents people from doing their jobs well," Close said.
The training program uses simulated campus encounters, such as the one involving the Friday night formation. It also includes clips from television shows and movies, such as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "School Ties." An excerpt from "We Were Soldiers" says that tolerance for others can be a matter of life or death on the battlefield. "When you need a man's help, you won't care what color he is, or by what name he calls God," the narrator says.
Some critics have argued that the training effort is too little and too late. "That RSVP program is putting lipstick on a pig," says Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate who says he and his two sons who attended the school all suffered discrimination for being Jewish. "The problem is a leadership that encourages the evangelicals and tolerates bias."
But Rast, an academy graduate who was teaching in the political science department when her new job was created, says she is convinced the academy and the Air Force are committed to change. "I think the attitude is more that we know we have a problem, and that means we have to work it."