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THE NATION

Non-Christian Air Force Cadets Cite Harassment

The academy, which has received more than 50 complaints, says it is requiring students to attend a class on religious tolerance.

April 20, 2005|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

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

School officials said Tuesday they had received 55 complaints over the last few months and were requiring students -- and eventually all employees -- to attend a course on religious tolerance.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 03, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Air Force Academy -- An article in the April 20 Section A on allegations of religious intolerance among cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy said there had been 55 such complaints over the last few months. The complaints occurred over the last four years.

"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% of the academy's 4,300 cadets identify themselves as Christians; the school's commandant, Brig. Gen. Johnny A. Weida, describes himself as a born-again Christian.

Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate and a lawyer in Albuquerque, said that his son Curtis -- a sophomore 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 ... 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 wanted Congress to investigate what he said was a pervasive Christian bias at the academy.

"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 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 movie posters were pinned up in the academy dining hall advertising the film. Cadets did mass e-mailings urging people to see it.

School leaders denounced the e-mails, saying students should not use government equipment to promote their religion.

At that point, officials 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 assaults had been ignored.

In response to the complaints of religious intolerance, the Colorado Springs, Colo., campus created the RSVP program, which stands for Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People.

The cadets are required to attend a 50-minute class; 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."

Weinstein called the RSVP program 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% Protestant and 30% Catholic. Included in the number of Christian cadets are 120 Mormons. There are 44 Jews and a handful of Hindus and Buddhists 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, Ted Haggard, heads the National Assn. of Evangelicals.

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

"If 90% of cadets identify themselves as Christian, it is common sense that Christianity will be in 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 underway to root out Christian beliefs. To root out what is pervasive in 90% of the group is ridiculous."

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