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 Wednesday said.
The conclusions by a team from Air Force headquarters acknowledged that religious slurs, jokes and disparaging remarks directed at non-Christian cadets took place. 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 blamed a lack of guidelines that spelled out what was 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 Air Force's premier officer training school in Colorado Springs, Colo., 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 people and 27 focus groups to examine the overall religious climate at the academy, where about 90% 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 last four years at the academy. Those complaints included one in which a Jewish cadet reportedly was told that the Holocaust was retribution for the death of Jesus, and another in which a Jewish cadet allegedly was called a Christ-killer.
According to the complaints, academy 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 compiled by the investigators that spanned more than 10 years.
A 1994 Air Force report expressed concern about "notoriously fundamentalist Christian speakers." One faculty member interviewed by the panel produced a course syllabus from that year that included a Bible verse and a statement that cadets would learn "awe and respect for the creator of the universe."
In February 2004, a flier advertising a showing of "The Passion of the Christ" was distributed at dining room place settings. Jewish cadets later reported anti-Semitic comments from other cadets that they believed were inspired by the flier.
Brady said seven additional cases of questionable religious conduct were discovered during the review and have been recommended for further investigation. He did not provide details, other than to say some instances involved professors.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group, leveled charges of religious intolerance at the academy in a report this spring and notified Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of a possible lawsuit.
Seeing Wednesday's findings, the group's executive director, Barry W. Lynn, said the Air Force had taken the first steps toward greater religious tolerance, but appeared to have "turned a blind eye" to the severity of the problem.
"It is certainly a significant start to be cleaning up a poisoned atmosphere at the Air Force Academy," he said. "But we're going to be very carefully monitoring the implementation of this cleanup campaign."
Lynn said the Air Force report listed incidents that appeared to stem less from confusion over policy than an intent by Christian officers to use their position of authority to promote their faith.
During the inquiry, a top chaplain at the academy complained that she was fired for speaking out about anti-Semitism and other reports of religious discrimination by cadets and staff.
Capt. Melinda Morton said she was transferred after accusing superiors of inappropriately promoting Christianity to students. Air Force officials said Morton had been scheduled for reassignment. She resigned from the Air Force this week.
"It's baffling that matters proceeded as far as they did at the Air Force Academy," her lawyer, Eugene R. Fidell, said in response to the findings. "The correction of this kind of sectarian influence cannot be achieved by directives. What's required here is a hands-on, deeply felt commitment to constitutional values."
The Air Force said efforts already were underway to create a more tolerant environment, including instructing faculty members to leave religion out of the classroom and requiring cadets to take a 50-minute religious sensitivity class.
On Wednesday, the panel further recommended developing policy guidelines regarding religious expression, as well as an increased effort to accommodate all faiths. The Air Force also announced a new academy position of vice superintendent to deal with religious and sexual harassment.