The Air Force Academy backed down Thursday after it came under fire for alleged religious intolerance, this time with a program designed to spread Christmas cheer.
Academy critic Mikey Weinstein accused commanders of crossing the line by promoting “Operation Christmas Child” a program sponsored by an evangelical Christian group that sends toys and toiletries in shoe boxes to needy kids around the globe. The group includes a Christian message with the gifts.
“This is arrogance beyond measure,” said Weinstein, an academy graduate who runs the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and has crossed swords with commanders at the school for years.
The academy, which initially stood by its promotion of the charity, changed its tune Thursday evening, with an email to cadets that retracted an earlier missive asking for help with the program. The academy’s commandant of cadets Brig. Gen. Richard Clark called Weinstein Thursday with an apology.
“We agree that it was inappropriate,” said Lt. Col John Bryan, an academy spokesman.
The project has been handed over to the academy’s chaplains, who can legally take part and recruit support for religious endeavors.
Bryan said the initial email was sent by cadets, operating under the radar of senior leaders.
The academy never denied the religious overtones of the charity, but initially said there is nothing wrong with the school’s involvement. The cadets would provide toys and other items for the needy, and wouldn’t play a role in the religious message that is included with the gifts when they’re delivered, academy spokesman John Van Winkle said.
“It doesn’t promote a particular faith, it promotes a charity event,” Van Winkle said.
The academy has faced repeated allegations, including some earlier this year, that the school allows proselytizing on the government dime.
Commanders have put “religious respect” training in place. In September, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz issued a memo to commanders that told them to avoid mixing religion with their military roles.
“They must refrain from appearing to officially endorse religion generally or any particular religion,” Schwartz wrote.
This time, Weinstein was miffed that an announcement about the Christmas toy drive was made to the entire cadet wing at lunchtime in Mitchell Hall, the academy’s cavernous dining room, and was followed up with an e-mail to all cadets.
“PLEASE, PLEASE CONSIDER SPENDING SOME OF YOUR VALUABLE TIME AND MONEY TO LOVE ON A KID AROUND THE WORLD!!,” the e-mail said. The e-mail was sent by a cadet after it was approved by a cadet leader.
Weinstein said he’d be fine if the academy was backing a secular toy drive, or if the religious charity was promoted by chaplains rather than cadet leaders. But having leaders apparently backing the worldwide evangelism aims of Operation Christmas Child is inappropriate, he said.
The charity doesn't hide its purpose. “We are an effective means of reaching hurting people in countries around the world with food, medicine, and other assistance in the Name of Jesus Christ,” the charity says on its website. A spokeswoman for the charity declined comment on Thursday.
Three years ago, a Colorado Springs School District 11 school dropped a project to support Operation Christmas Child after administrators learned of its evangelical goals.
Weinstein said he’s happy the charity drive is no longer endorsed by academy bosses.
“We got this one fixed,” he said
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0194