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Gazette Premium Content Atheists and ordained OK AFA's religious tolerance plan

TOM ROEDER Updated: November 16, 2010 at 12:00 am

A panel of experts including an atheist and a Baptist has signed off on a new plan to teach religious tolerance at the Air Force Academy.

The academy says the two-day Religious Respect Conference wasn’t aimed at silencing critics or reacting to a recently-released survey of airmen there that shows a jump in religious tolerance woes. Instead, they say, it’s part of a program that will teach cadets to embrace religious freedom.

“The key here is to instill training,” said Col. Robert Bruno, the academy’s top chaplain.

The plan includes teaching cadets about First Amendment rights and the right of their classmates to be left alone when religious topics come up. It was unveiled during the conference to 20 religious and religious-freedom organizations.

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the national Interfaith Alliance, said while he’s previously criticized prosyletizing at the academy, the new plan will help the academy move on from years of religious tolerance concerns.

The academy’s recent climate survey found that nearly half of non-Christian cadets think their classmates have a “low-tolerance” for non-believers.

Religious climate concerns first arose in 2004 with claims that Christian evangelism created a toxic climate on campus. That led to a revamp of how the academy’s more than 4,000 cadets are trained to deal with religious issues.

The newest curriculum, built in consultation with cadets, is designed to teach religious freedom while assuring non-believers don’t face unwanted proselytizing or discrimination.

“Everybody’s freedom will be increased in the end,” said Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.

The academy’s top critic on religious issues, Military Religious Freedom Foundation head Mikey Weinstein, wasn’t invited to the conference and he’s not buying the academy’s pledge to improve the climate.

He says he represents scores of cadets and airmen at the academy who face religious discrimination.

“The people who are suffering were not allowed to have a voice,” he said.

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