By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 11, 2006; A10
Chris Ledoux thought he might sponsor a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy. Opening one's home as a safe haven to a plebe, or academy freshman, is an Annapolis tradition and a point of pride to many Annapolitans.
But Ledoux got no farther than page four on the application -- and a pair of questions that required him to state whether he would prefer a plebe of a particular religion or race.
He called local politicians last week to complain about the questions, which struck him as inappropriate for a service academy to ask. Word spread to local civil rights leaders, who were incensed. A controversy was born.
"This is not a dating service," said Ledoux, an Annapolis resident. "This is the federal government. And when the federal government is asking questions like, 'What race do you prefer?' they need to be careful."
The dispute is new, but the questions are not. They have been part of the Naval Academy sponsor application for at least 10 years, according to academy officials. The six-page application also requires prospective sponsors to state preferences about gender, smoking habits and the favored sport of their ideal midshipman. Elsewhere on the form, sponsors are asked to rank their top six preferences from a list of seven that includes both race and religion.
Although prospective sponsors must answer questions about racial and religious preference, they may do so by stating that they have no preference. And that is exactly what the vast majority of prospective sponsors do, said Deborah Goode, an academy spokeswoman.
The academy said in a prepared statement that the questions "are in the best interests of the midshipmen to help them feel comfortable with their sponsor family."
The sponsor program has existed for about 30 years, matching first-year students with families in the community for a semblance of home away from the rigors of the academy. Nearly 700 sponsors are hosting 1,200 students in the Class of 2010. Hispanics make up about 9 percent of academy students and African Americans about 6 percent, according to data for last year's freshmen.
Penny Vahsen of Annapolis sponsors a dozen midshipmen, three from each class. They visit her whenever they can. A 12-hour window on Saturday is the only time plebes are allowed off campus. Midshipmen gain freedom incrementally as they approach graduation.
"They watch a lot of TV. They swim in the pool. They just relax, is the main thing," Vahsen said.
She said she does not state a racial or religious preference when she renews her sponsorship each year. But she knows some people do. "There are a lot of blacks, for example, who will only sponsor blacks," she said. "There are a lot of whites who will only sponsor those. There are Asians who will only sponsor Asians."
She sees no harm in asking the questions.
"It's not a preference against. It's a preference for," she said.
Reaction has been more skeptical among some in the Annapolis black community.
Carl Snowden, an aide to the county executive and prominent civil rights leader, said in a statement that to ask for racial preferences "creates an apartheid system in their sponsor program that is both repugnant and unacceptable for a publicly funded agency."
Keith Gross, a black Annapolitan from the Clay Street projects who graduated from the academy in 1981, said he, too, considers the questions inappropriate. He said the academy's response -- that its goal was to make midshipmen feel comfortable -- invokes anachronistic attitudes about race.
He said of the question on race, "There's no practical reason why that should be in there."
Academy officials said only 1 percent of sponsor families had stated racial or religious preferences in the past two years.
The application "is used to evaluate and match sponsor families with incoming midshipmen of similar interests" or with specific midshipmen requested by the sponsors, the academy said in its statement. Midshipmen may state preferences, as well. Whenever possible, matches are based on those preferences.
Ledoux, the prospective sponsor, contacted Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) to complain about the application. Cardin "has asked for more information about the program from the academy," said Susan Sullam, a spokeswoman for Cardin.