Religious bias claimed at Air Force Academy

55 complaints received about Christian cadets bullying other faiths

April 20, 2005|By David Kelly | David Kelly,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DENVER - The Air Force Academy, still recovering from rape and sexual harassment scandals, now is facing charges that some Christian cadets have bullied and berated Jews and students of other religious backgrounds.

Officials at the Colorado Springs school said yesterday that they had received 55 complaints over the past few months and were requiring students - and eventually all employees - to attend courses on religious tolerance.

Types of complaints

"Some complaints had to do with people ... saying bad things about persons of other religions or proselytizing in inappropriate places," said academy spokesman Johnny Whitaker. "There have been cases of maliciousness, mean-spiritedness and attacking or baiting someone over religion."

About 90 percent of the 4,300 cadets at the academy identify themselves as Christians.

The school's leader, Commandant Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, describes himself as born again.

Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate and lawyer in Albuquerque, N.M., said his son, Curtis - who is in his second year at the academy - had been called a "filthy Jew."

"When I visited my son, he told me he wanted us to go off base because he had something to tell me," Weinstein said. "He said, `They are calling me a [expletive] Jew.,and that I am responsible for killing Christ.' My son told me that he was going to hit the next one who called him something."

Weinstein, 50, said he wants Congress to investigate what he says is a pervasive Christian bias built into the academy.

`Systemic problem'

"When I was at the academy, there wasn't this institutional notion that if you didn't accept Christ you would burn eternally in hell," he said. "I want the generals to come out and say, `Yes, we have a systemic problem, and we are working to fix it.' "

Air Force officials said they first got an inkling of a problem after reading the results of a student survey last May.

Many cadets expressed concern over religious respect and a lack of tolerance.

Then, The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's film about the crucifixion, was released.

Hundreds of small movie posters were pinned up in the academy dining hall advertising the movie. Cadets did mass e-mailings urging people to go see it.

School leaders denounced the e-mails saying students shouldn't be using government equipment to promote their religion. Then they began looking into the situation.

"We started getting people coming forward," Whitaker said. "Folks sent e-mails to the chaplain describing events - none of which were reported when they happened. Many of the complaints have been addressed."

Two years ago, the academy's reputation was tarnished by a scandal in which dozens of female cadets said their complaints about sexual assault had been ignored.

Response

So, in response to the complaints of religious intolerance, the Colorado Springs campus created the RSVP program, or Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People.

The cadets are required to attend a 50-minute classes; soon all 9,000 employees of the academy will have to take part.

"A lot of this is just insensitivity or ignorance," Whitaker said. "These are people who are going into a very diverse Air Force, where they will have to deal with people of all faiths."

But Weinstein said the RSVP program was window dressing for a more serious problem.

"It's Jim Crow, it's lipstick on a pig, it's eye candy," he said. "I love the academy, but they are lying when they say this isn't a systemic problem. Do you know how much courage it takes for these kids to come forward?"

The academy is about 60 percent Protestant and 30 percent Catholic. Included in the number of Christian cadets are 120 Mormons. Forty-four Jews and a handful of Hindus and Buddhists are at the academy, officials said.

Colorado Springs is home to more than 100 evangelical Christian organizations - including Focus on the Family, the International Bible Society and New Life Church, whose pastor, the Rev. Ted Haggard, heads the National Association of Evangelicals.

Another view

Yesterday, Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy at Focus on the Family, denounced any acts of bigotry, but said it is Christians who are facing discrimination.

"If 90 percent of cadets identify themselves as Christian, it is common sense that Christianity will be on evidence on the campus," he said. "Christianity is deeply felt and very important to people ... and to suggest that it should be bottled up is nonsense. I think a witch hunt is under way to root out Christian beliefs. To root out what is pervasive in 90 percent of the group is ridiculous."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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