"We must continue to hold the Air Force's feet to the fire," said U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., following the release of a weak report on the Pentagon investigation into proselytizing and religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. The Pentagon denied a systemic problem, but admitted insensitivity.
Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., joined Capps in calling for stricter Congressional oversight into the military school. The investigation offered excuses, instead of acknowledging the "pervasive and coercive religious environment," Israel said.
The June 21 report was released on the same date that Capt. Melinda Morton announced she was resigning her commission. Morton, a Lutheran and executive chaplain at the Academy, contended she had been fired on May 4 for speaking out against the Academy's religious climate of "strident evangelicalism."
"Evangelicalism is the official religion of the Air Force Academy," she had told USA Today.
"The evangelical tone is pervasive at the Academy," she told The Washington Post, "and it's aimed at converting these young people who are under intense pressure anyway."
She also criticized a new program, "RSVP" (Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People), inaugurated to teach "tolerance." A week after taking the one-hour seminar, head football coach Fisher DeBerry placed a banner in the Falcons locker room, reading: "I am a member of Team Jesus Christ." The banner was later removed.
The Pentagon task force failed to meet with Morton, as well as with two other outspoken critics: Yale Prof. Kristen Leslie, and Mikey Weinstein, father of a cadet who has been the recipient of anti-Semitic slurs.
Leslie headed a team from Yale Divinity School, which had been invited to evaluate the religious climate last summer. Leslie found "this very strong evangelical Christian voice just dominating," in a military school whose mission is "to protect and train cadets, not to win religious converts."
Weinstein, a 1977 Academy graduate himself, said the problem is not "Christian versus Jew," but "evangelical Christians against everybody else."
His son, Curtis, a sophomore, was called "a (expletive) Jew." His older son, 2nd Lt. Casey Weinstein, 22, called evangelical Christians "a large vocal minority that is the 800-pound gorilla" on campus.
Weinstein, who was told by a task force representative to stop criticizing the Academy, warned that the task force could turn into a "mask force." While investigators insisted "the Academy leadership is aggressively dealing with this issue," and the climate "had improved over the past two years," Weinstein said "a colossal failure of leadership is resulting in a constitutional train wreck."
Forty-five members of Congress had signed a letter to the acting secretary of the Air Force in May asking him to ensure an open investigation. After the report was issued, Capps said, "The Air Force needs to change its mindset, change its culture and enforce its regulations."
The report recommended that seven specific incidents be investigated further.
"Chaplain of the Year" Maj. Warren Watties reportedly told incoming cadets last summer they "will burn in the fires of hell" if they are not "born again." The Air Force ruled in late April that Watties' remarks, calling for cadets to evangelize bunkmates during basic training, as well as warning of burning in hellfire, were "appropriate and consistent" with federal workplace rules.
Cadets who refused to go to chapel after dinner during basic training were organized into a "Heathen Flight" and marched back to dormitories.
Mandatory cadet meetings often included Christian prayers.
Many faculty members introduced themselves to students as born-again Christians and urged students to become "born again" too.
Flyers promoting Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," were put on each cadet's place setting at dinner, as movie promos played.
The official Academy newspaper runs a yearly ad at Christmas praising Jesus and declaring him "the only savior," signed by some 200 Academy staff, including department heads. In 2004, the ad was omitted.
Academy commandant Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida made a June 2003 statement to cadets that their first responsibility is to God. In May, the Pentagon announced it wanted to promote him.
Some officer commission ceremonies were held at off-campus churches.
Fifty-five complaints of religious discrimination have been brought in the past four years. In April, Col. Michael Whittington, chief chaplain, insisted that all "inappropriate" incidents "have been addressed and resolved."
A 2003 survey showed that half of the 4,300 cadets had heard religious slurs and jokes. In 2003, dozens of women came forward saying they were sexually assaulted at the Academy and that their reports of the crimes were ignored or they were penalized.
Write the Air Force
Acting Secretary of the Air Force
1670 Air Force
Washington DC 20330-1670