Air Force Academy No place for religious intolerance

Posted: May 09, 2005

Still grappling with a 2003 sexual-assault scandal, the U.S. Air Force Academy now faces charges that overzealous Christians are creating a culture of religious intolerance on its Colorado campus.

Cadets have lodged 55 complaints of religious harassment since 2000, including a Jewish cadet being blamed for the death of Jesus and cadets who missed chapel being put into a "heathen flight." Cadets feel pressured by faculty who reportedly led prayer before exams, signed newspaper ads promoting Jesus, and posted a banner proclaiming, "I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."

This isn't evangelism; it's attempted coercion. Our national defense depends on junior officers leading disciplined lives of constant compliance. But the Constitution guarantees that their religious beliefs remain their own.

Last summer, visiting observers from the Yale University Divinity School reported constant evangelism, which threatened to encourage "religious divisions rather than fostering spiritual understanding." A follow-up investigation last month by the Washington watchdog group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State found numerous examples of religious bias.

In response, the academy has ordered faculty members to stop proselytizing in the classroom. Cadets are forbidden from using government e-mail to send religious missives or ads. Cadets and staff have to take a sensitivity class called Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People.

But these steps may not be enough. The Air Force should continue to incorporate suggestions from advisers, such as the Anti-Defamation League and Josephson Institute of Ethics, as a task force appointed last week begins its investigation.

America's armed forces have a long tradition of religious tolerance. Its heroes have come from almost every faith, a fact exemplified by the military's varied chaplains, including rabbis, ministers and priests. Intolerance at the academy must end.

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