Intolerance Found at Air Force Academy

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 23, 2005

A military study of the religious climate at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs found several examples of religious intolerance, insensitivity and inappropriate proselytizing on the part of Air Force officers and cadets, but a report issued yesterday at the Pentagon concluded that the school is not overtly discriminatory and has made improvements in recent months.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady announced that his 16-member review team found a "perception of religious bias" in more than 300 interviews with cadets representing all faiths and with faculty members and administrators. Brady also found that there was a failure at the academy "to fully accommodate all members' needs and a lack of awareness over where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs."

Brady told reporters at an afternoon news conference at the Pentagon that there did not appear to be a systemic problem, but he cited examples in which professors used their lecterns to promote specific religious activities to their cadets, calling the professors "well intended, but wrong." He said some personnel were concerned about the impact of religious affiliation on their careers and some cadets expressed objections to what they perceived to be mandatory prayers at official functions and in locker rooms.

"Additionally, some faculty members and coaches consider it their duty to profess their faith and discuss this issue in their classrooms in furtherance of developing cadets' spirituality," according to the 40-page document.

The report came after allegations that officers at the academy promoted evangelical Christian beliefs and were insensitive to cadets who were of a different religion or chose not to practice a faith. The allegations spurred a heated debate about the separation of church and state at the federally funded military school and caused a backlash among the chaplain community there.

Brady's study found glaring examples of that insensitivity and recommended that seven specific incidents be investigated further. He said his group, which visited the academy over four days in early May, was there to "take the pulse" of the religious climate, not to investigate wrongdoing.

Examples of questionable behavior highlighted in the report included the school's head football coach hanging a "Team Jesus" banner in the locker room in November 2004; the academy's commandant sending out a schoolwide message on the National Day of Prayer and encouraging cadets to use the "J for Jesus" hand signal; and senior school personnel signing on to a Christian advertisement citing scripture in the base newspaper.

Also detailed in the report was an incident in February 2004, when cadets reported their peers had placed fliers on the more than 4,000 place settings at the cadet dining facility and in other common areas promoting the film "The Passion of the Christ."

"Cadets felt they were being proselytized and pressured to see the movie," the report said. "Jewish cadets told the team they encountered anti-Semitic comments that they believe 'The Passion of The Christ' flyer event inspired."

Cadets also reported being harassed for not taking part in voluntary prayer meetings during basic training and being labeled as instead taking part in the "Heathen Flight" back to dorms for time to relax.

The concerns about religious intolerance arose during earlier investigations of complaints that sexual harassment was common on the campus but were ignored by school administrators. The teams studying the academy heard stories of favoritism toward evangelical cadets and faculty members and allegations of discrimination against others.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), who along with 45 other Democrats asked the secretary of the Air Force to become involved in the probe, called the report a step in the right direction but said it identified serious problems at the Air Force Academy that need to be addressed immediately.

"I continue to have serious concerns," Capps said. "The report downplays the full extent of an environment consumed by religious intolerance. . . . I am offended and I am shocked by the proselytizing that has been going on."

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the report "could have been far more forthright than it is" and urged the academy to take decisive action to remedy the problems. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, welcomed the report and called it "a significant start to cleaning up a poisoned atmosphere at the Air Force Academy."

Former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III, chairman of the Air Force Academy's Board of Visitors, said yesterday that the academy has been going through a learning experience and dealing with a complicated challenge, one that is all over society. He said the academy will not tolerate religious abuse or favoritism but will protect the right of religious freedom.

"Some people thought, apparently, that they were doing the right thing by expressing their faith, but they failed to understand the impact it would have on people with other faiths or with no faith," Gilmore said. "They understand that now. I think they recognize that some faculty members probably went over the line."

Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, said yesterday that he believes major strides have been made over the past two years. "When problems like this arise, we are transparent with these problems, and we don't let them roll around," Jumper said. "We take them on, and we work these problems."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company