Responding to complaints raised by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the U.S. Air Force issued a report in June on the religious climate at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
Americans United welcomed the document as a constructive first step but said more needs to be done. Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said the report appears to be defensive and downplays some instances of religious bias.
Problems at the Academy are acknowledged, Lynn said, but task force members denied that there is a pattern of intentional religious intolerance and bias there. The Executive Summary observes, “The HQ USAF team found a religious climate that does not involve overt religious discrimination, but a failure to fully accommodate all members’ needs and a lack of awareness over where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs.”
Allegations of religious harassment and official preference toward evangelical Christianity were brought to Americans United’s attention by Mikey Weinstein, an Albuquerque AU member whose son, Curtis, is a cadet at the Academy. Curtis Weinstein complained of instances of anti-Semitism at the institution and a school-sanctioned evangelical atmosphere. (See “Kingdom of Heaven?,” June 2005 Church & State.)
On April 28, Americans United sent a 14-page report to the Air Force detailing instances of religious bias. In response, Air Force officials announced creation of a task force that visited the Academy and prepared the USAF analysis.
“This report is not perfect, but it is an important first step,” said Lynn. “It acknowledges the extent of the problem and promises changes. It is now incumbent upon the Air Force to make certain that promise is fulfilled.”
Lynn said the Air Force should have taken a harder line in certain cases. For example, AU’s report contained allegations that Maj. Warren Watties, the Academy’s head chaplain, used a general Protestant worship service to promote evangelical Christianity, urging cadets to convert their peers and threatening that they would “burn in the fires of hell” if they did not accept Jesus as their personal savior.
The Air Force report excuses Watties’ actions, asserting that attendance at the service was voluntary and noting that the chaplain comes from an evangelical background.
The tepid stance is all the more unusual in light of recent comments by Lt. Gen. John Rosa, superintendent of the Academy. In a June 3 speech to the Anti-Defamation League’s executive committee in Denver, Rosa acknowledged that the problems at the Academy are serious.
“As a commander, I know I have problems in my cadet wing,” Rosa said. “I have issues in my staff and I have issues in my faculty – and that’s my entire organization.” He said the problem is “something that keeps me awake at nights.”
Rosa’s admission was considered significant because it marked the first time a high-ranking Academy official has acknowledged the seriousness of the problem since AU filed its report.
At a Pentagon press briefing releasing the report, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel Lt. Gen. Roger Brady and other Air Force officials pledged corrective action. They noted that the report contains nine significant recommendations, which will be implemented.
The Academy will also receive a new position, a vice superintendent, who will assist the superintendent in implementing the report’s recommendations.
Meanwhile, Americans United continues to receive more complaints from former and current Air Force cadets regarding the mixing of church and state at the Academy and at Air Force bases.
Lynn emphasized that AU will continue to closely monitor the situation and work with members of Congress to make certain that cadets from all religious and philosophical points of view are welcome at the institution. The day the report was issued, he joined U.S. Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Lois Capps (D-Calif.) at a Capitol Hill press conference to react to the document.
“I wish the Air Force Academy had been more forthcoming in admitting that religious intolerance does exist at the Academy,” said Lynn. “Members of our military are charged with defending our way of life, which includes religious liberty. It would be ironic indeed if the Air Force failed to protect that basic right for Academy cadets.”
“We intend to remain involved to ensure that the basic constitutional rights of all cadets are respected,” Lynn concluded.
Other developments at the Academy include:
• Capt. MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran chaplain at the Academy who publicly criticized the religious climate there, has announced that she is resigning from the Air Force.
A statement issued by her attorney asserted, “As an important federal institution of higher learning, the Academy must exemplify our highest constitutional values. Recent actions by Air Force senior leadership are encouraging. But experience teaches that it can be all too easy to afford lip service to those values. The systemic failures that have plagued the Academy – which is a centerpiece of the Nation’s military training program – demand constant vigilance if we are to maintain the delicate balance between free exercise of religion for Cadets and the need to keep Church and State within their proper spheres.”
• The House of Representatives erupted in a heated dispute over the situation at the Academy. On June 20, floor business was held up for 45 minutes after Democrats demanded that U.S. Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.) withdraw remarks he made accusing Democrats of “denigrating and demonizing Christians.”
Hostettler’s comments came as the House debated an amendment to a Defense Department appropriations bill that criticized “coercive and abusive” proselytizing at the Academy and required the Air Force to submit a plan for corrective action to Congress within 60 days.
Blasting the amendment, Hostettler said, “The long war on Christianity in America continues today on the floor of the House of Representatives” and “continues unabated with aid and comfort to those who would eradicate any vestige of our Christian heritage being supplied by the usual suspects, the Democrats. Like a moth to a flame, Democrats can’t help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians.”
In the face of Democratic protests, Hostettler agreed to withdraw the final sentence of his comments.
After emotional debate, the House voted 210-198 to exclude the amendment from the bill. In its place, members adopted a watered-down version asking the Air Force to report on its recommendations within 90 days.
A few days later, Focus on the Family sent an e-mail message to supporters praising Hostettler for defending Christianity and asking recipients to send him notes of support.