Apr 19, 4:12 PM EDT
Air Force Cadets See Religious Harassment
By ROBERT WELLER
Associated Press Writer
AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP) -- Less than two years
after it was plunged into a rape scandal, the Air
Force Academy is scrambling to address complaints that
evangelical Christians wield so much influence at the
school that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious
harassment have become pervasive.
There have been 55 complaints of religious
discrimination at the academy in the past four years,
including cases in which a Jewish cadet was told the
Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus and
another was called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet.
The 4,300-student school recently started requiring
staff members and cadets to take a 50-minute
"There are things that have happened that have been
inappropriate. And they have been addressed and
resolved," said Col. Michael Whittington, the
academy's chief chaplain.
More than 90 percent of the cadets identify themselves
as Christian. A cadet survey in 2003 found that half
had heard religious slurs and jokes, and that many
non-Christians believed Christians get special
"There were people walking up to someone and basically
they would get in a conversation and it would end
with, `If you don't believe what I believe you are
going to hell,'" Vice Commandant Col. Debra Gray said.
Critics of the academy say the sometimes-public
endorsement of Christianity by high-ranking staff has
contributed to a climate of fear and violates the
constitutional separation of church and state at a
taxpayer-supported school whose mission is to produce
Air Force leaders.
They also say academy leaders are desperate to avoid
the sort of uproar that came with the 2003 scandal in
which dozens of women said their complaints of sexual
assault were ignored.
"They are deliberately trivializing the problem so
that we don't have another situation the magnitude of
the sex assault scandal. It is inextricably
intertwined in every aspect of the academy," said
Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, N.M., a 1977 graduate
who has sent two sons to the school. He said the
younger, Curtis, has been called a "filthy Jew" many
The superintendent, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, conceded there
was a problem during a recent meeting of the Board of
Visitors, the civilian group that oversees the
"The problem is people have been across the line for
so many years when you try and come back in bounds,
people get offended," he said.
The board chairman, former Virginia Gov. James
Gilmore, warned Rosa that changing things could prove
complicated. He said evangelical Christians "do not
check their religion at the door."
Other critics point to a series of incidents,
-The Air Force is investigating a complaint from an
atheist cadet who says the school is "systematically
biased against any cadet that does not overtly espouse
-The official academy newspaper runs a Christmas ad
every year praising Jesus and declaring him the only
savior. Some 200 academy staff members, including some
department heads, signed it. Whittington noted the ad
was not published last December.
-The academy commandant, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, a
born-again Christian, said in a statement to cadets in
June 2003 that their first responsibility is to their
God. He also strongly endorsed National Prayer Day
that year. School spokesman Johnny Whitaker said Weida
now runs his messages by several other commanders.
-Some officer commission ceremonies were held at
off-campus churches. In a letter dated April 6, Weida
said the ceremonies would be held on campus from now
Rosa and other academy leaders say some among the
large number of Christian cadets - nearly 2,600 are
Protestant, some 1,300 are Roman Catholic, and about
120 are Mormon - may not realize that evangelism is
unwelcome among their fellow students. The corps of
cadets also includes 44 Jews, 19 Buddhists and a few
Muslims, Hindus and others. There are 15 chaplains and
Rosa himself intervened when Christian cadets began
promoting "The Passion," Mel Gibson's movie about the
crucifixion of Christ. He told cadets they should not
use government e-mail or other facilities to promote
their personal agendas.
Two of the nation's most influential evangelical
Christian groups, Focus on the Family and New Life
Church, are headquartered in nearby Colorado Springs.
Tom Minnery, an official at Focus on the Family,
disputed claims that evangelical Christians are
pushing an agenda at the academy, and complained that
"there is an anti-Christian bigotry developing" at the