Religious intolerance at academy examined

Cases of insensitivity don't amount to discrimination, Air Force panel concludes

June 23, 2005|By Faye Fiore and Mark Mazzetti | Faye Fiore and Mark Mazzetti,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - A Pentagon investigation of reported harassment by Christian cadets and teachers found that the U.S. Air Force Academy had failed to accommodate people of non-Christian beliefs but had not engaged in "overt religious discrimination," a report released yesterday said.

The conclusions by a team from Air Force headquarters acknowledged that religious slurs, jokes and disparaging remarks had been directed at non-Christian cadets. It said Christian professors used their positions as officers and authority figures to promote their faith.

But the team said instances of religious intolerance were less malicious than misguided, and it blamed a lack of guidelines clearly spelling out proper or improper religious expression.

"Some cadets had been overly aggressive in the expression of their faith, offending some," said Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady, Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel. "Likewise, some members of the faculty and staff also have strong religious beliefs that have on occasion been expressed in ways that others found offensive."

Charges of religious intolerance at the school came as the academy was rebounding from a sexual assault scandal. In December, an internal Pentagon review concluded that top officials had created a culture at the academy that allowed sexual abuse.

The latest investigative team met with about 300 individuals and 27 focus groups to examine the overall religious climate at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where about 90 percent of the 4,300 cadets identify themselves as Christian. The commandant, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, says he is a born-again Christian.

The panel did not investigate any of the 55 individual complaints of religious discrimination filed in the past four years at the academy.

Those complaints included one Jewish cadet who reportedly was told that the Holocaust was retribution for the death of Jesus, and another who allegedly was called a Christ-killer.

According to the complaints, staff members also urged Christian students to inform those who were not "born again" that they faced "the fires of hell."

Concern over religious insensitivity is nothing new at the academy, according to a chronology of events spanning more than 10 years that was compiled by the investigators.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group, leveled charges of religious intolerance at the academy this spring and notified Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of a possible lawsuit.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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