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Air Force probes religious bias charges at academy

Cadet complaints are rising at Colorado school, officials say

From Mike Mount
CNN Washington Bureau

U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Air Force said Tuesday it will appoint a task force to investigate allegations of religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy.

Among the items to be reviewed will be Air Force policy and guidance concerning religious respect and tolerance at the academy, said acting Secretary of the Air Force Michael Dominguez.

Some 55 complaints of religious discrimination have been filed going back to 2001, prompting school officials to require that all 9,000 cadets and faculty and staff members take a 50-minute course on religious sensitivity, academy officials said.

In addition, a report last week by a Washington-based religious liberty group accused cadets and staff members of creating a climate that discriminated against non-Christians at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

"We have concluded that both the specific violations and the promotion of a culture of official religious intolerance are pervasive, systematic and evident at the very highest levels of the academy's command structure," said the report from Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The group, which according to its Web site is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian organization founded in 1947 to defend the principle of religious freedom, said its investigation and report were based on "numerous complaints from a variety of sources."

Among the allegations are that cadets are frequently pressured to attend chapel and take religious instruction, particularly in the evangelical Christian faith; that prayer is a part of mandatory events at the academy; and that in at least one case a teacher ordered students to pray before beginning their final examination.

The report said it found that non-Christian cadets are subjected to "proselytization or religious harassment" by more senior cadets; and that cadets of other religions are subject to discrimination, such as being denied passes off-campus to attend religious services.

The report said that in at least two cases "highly qualified individuals were dissuaded from attending the academy ... after learning of the official culture of religious intolerance and hostility toward those who do not subscribe to and practice evangelical Christianity.

"When the Air Force is denied the service of the country's best and brightest young people because they feel excluded from the academy by religious intolerance, the armed forces and the nation as a whole are weakened," the report said.

The Air Force said its investigating task force will comprise Air Force officials, including a representative of the general counsel's office and a chaplain. The team is expected to report to the academy in about a week.

The task force is expected to examine academy commanders who may "enhance or detract from a climate that respects both the free exercise of religion and the establishment clauses of the First Amendment," according to an Air Force statement.

The investigation follows a sexual assault scandal that rocked the academy in 2003.

Rising complaints

More than 90 percent of the academy's students identify themselves as Christians, with 60 percent saying they were Protestant and 30 percent Catholic.

About 1 percent are Jewish and the rest is made up of Hindus and Buddhists, among others, according to academy officials.

Complaints ranging from anti-Semitic slurs to teachers preaching in class were mounting with the school's chaplain last summer, according to school officials.

In one case, students promoted the Mel Gibson movie "Passion of the Christ" by plastering hundreds of movie posters in the cafeteria.

Students also used their school e-mail accounts to promote the movie, prompting the superintendent of the school, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, to clarify that students could not use government e-mail to promote their religion.

In another instance, the commandant of the academy, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, a born-again-Christian, drew fire from at least one student who said the general put God in front of the Constitution in a speech to students.

The student who filed the complaint noted that as a member of the military one first swears allegiance to the Constitution and then to God.

An academy official said Weida's messages must now be approved by Rosa and other commanders.

Officials said none of the complaints appeared to have involved physical attacks and none were reported at the time they occurred.

Officials said most of the incidents were either verbal or actions that insulted another religion.

None of the complaints involved broken laws or violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but officials said that several students have been counseled for their actions.

No punishments have been handed down for religious intolerance issues, but one case is being investigated by the Air Force inspector general and they could not comment on it, academy officials said.

Cadet survey

The Air Force has said that a survey of cadets in 2004 uncovered "perceptions of religious bias."

Of the more than 3,500 cadets who responded, more than 50 percent agreed that religious slurs and jokes are used.

Conversely, just fewer than 50 percent reported they "never" heard demeaning comments.

Nearly 50 percent of non-Christian cadets surveyed said classmates have a low tolerance for those who do not "follow a religion" or "believe in a divine being."

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