Flying Over the Line

A cadet walks up
A cadet walks up "Chapel Trail" from the Chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, Thursday, May 12, 2005. Top Air Force Academy chaplian Capt. Melinda Morton said Thursday she was fired for speaking up about anti-Semitism and other reports of religious intolerance among cadets and staff, including allegations that evangelical Christians wield too much influence. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski) (A Cadet Walks From The Chapel At The Air Force Academy Last Month./by Ed Andrieski -- Associated Press)
By Richard Cohen
Thursday, June 9, 2005

We should all attend the Air Force Academy. We should do so not just to learn about military flying but also -- actually, mainly -- to find out what happens when religion is not kept in its place. At the academy, the result has been utter contempt for separation of church and state and a form of religious persecution. Its own top guy, Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., in an unintended homage to the movie "Apollo 13," put it this way: "We have a problem." I'd "roger" that.

The problem, as Rosa described it in a meeting last week with the Anti-Defamation League, "is very insidious." He said it would take "probably six years" to solve if only because until relatively recently the academy itself did not realize that it had a problem. In other words, a culture of militant Christianity, intimidation and outright bigotry was so entrenched and so ordinary that no one, with the understandable exception of the occasional victim, noticed that anything was amiss.

What, exactly, are we talking about? We are talking about what a former chaplain at the academy called a "systematic and pervasive" effort at religious proselytizing in which both students and faculty participated. We are talking about semi-official efforts to promote Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ." We are talking about e-mails sent to the entire student body with religious messages and classes that opened with a prayer and the intimidation -- a form of hazing -- of secular or non-Christian students by others.

In his talk, Rosa quibbled with news accounts of what was happening at the academy, so maybe it is best to just stick to what he himself acknowledged, in a transcript the ADL posted on its Web site. The one that is probably the most troubling has to do with a banner the football coach hung in the locker room. It said, "I am a Christian first and last . . . I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."

"It came down right after it went up, but clearly, clearly over the line," Rosa told the ADL's national director, Abe Foxman, and his delegation. "I personally sat down with the football coach. We talked and had a two-hour discussion." Rosa said he told the coach, Fisher DeBerry, that the government was "paying him to coach" football and not, by implication, religion. This must have been news to the coach. His own posted bio emphasizes his religious faith.

The so-called "Competitor's Creed" can be found in plenty of locker rooms, but the Air Force Academy is not just another school. It is an entirely government-supported institution whose graduates go off to work for the government -- which is to say you and me. It is downright impermissible for anyone to, in effect, establish an authorized form of religion that makes anyone else feel like an outsider. The Air Force Academy is not a Christian institution. It is a military school, attended mostly by Christians. That's a big difference.

Some blame the academy's troubles on its location, Colorado Springs. The city is the headquarters of many fundamentalist Christian groups and churches. That's bound to have an effect. But the real trouble is one of leadership. DeBerry has been at the academy for more than 20 years. Last year cannot be the first time he either hung such a banner or in some other way made known his religious views. The same holds for whoever thought "The Passion of the Christ" ought to be, in effect, a required course -- or the others who made Jews and Catholics and moderate Protestants feel singled out. This is just the first time all of this has come to the attention of outsiders.

If Rosa did not know what was happening at the academy -- he's been superintendent less than two years -- then others on the faculty or in the cadet corps certainly did. They took no action. By now, some of them are important Air Force officers. Don't they know anything about the Bill of Rights and separation of church and state? After all, little in life better exemplifies the state and its power than a military academy. It simply cannot be in the church business.

The next time anyone asserts that religion is being shoved around in America, tell him to look at the Air Force Academy. And the next time anyone suggests that courts have gone too far in protecting the rights of religious minorities, tell him to look at the Air Force Academy. In the meantime, Congress ought to look -- and look hard -- at the academy and the officers it has graduated. They know how to fly, but maybe they don't know what they are flying for.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company