Updated: March 30, 2005 at 12:00 am
Responding to complaints of religious bias, the Air Force Academy on Tuesday kicked off a long-awaited sensitivity program designed to instill respect for religious diversity among cadets and staff. About 40 faculty and staff members gathered in Fairchild Hall to hear a 50-minute presentation that featured movie clips and outlines of Defense Department policies to emphasize that academy personnel cannot push religious beliefs on one another or cadets. The training, a year in the making, stems from claims that the academy fosters an atmosphere that favors Christianity. Cadets and faculty members have reported religious slurs against those of other religions, insensitivity to certain religions’ observances, and Christian proselytizing. One teaching tool was a filmed reenactment of an academy professor who, speaking to his class, declared his Christian church affiliation and invited cadets to attend with him. Although it’s OK for a professor to state his belief, it’s not OK to advocate it, instructors said. “The issue is not about religion,” said Chaplain Capt. Melinda Morton, who led the training. “It’s about respecting everyone’s right to believe as they choose.” That’s essential in an environment dominated by power hierarchies, she said, because cadets can perceive they’d score points by adopting an instructor’s or military leader’s religious beliefs. Laws and policies mandate equal opportunity regardless of religious affiliation — a tenet imperative to carrying out the mission, she said. That was the message in a scene from “We Were Soldiers,” which was shown during the training. In it, actor Mel Gibson tells his troops that regardless of race, creed or religious belief, they will fight together, watch one another’s backs in battle and go home together, dead or alive. “It’s crucial we establish mutual re- spect . . . the foundation upon which we develop leaders of character,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Holland, head of the physics department, who helped with the training. Although discussion was sluggish at first, those attending were soon tossing out scenarios and asking questions. Some wondered why they couldn’t encourage cadets to attend church, since spirituality is an element of character. Another asked how far he could go in promoting his American Indian belief system that reveres nature. Although not every question was answered with certainty, some ironclad rules were imposed: no proselytizing, no using your position to promote a personal agenda, no posting of religious posters except with the chaplaincy’s permission and on designated bulletin boards, no promoting religious clubs. Trainers acknowledged the road will be a long one. “We’re very concerned about improving our culture here,” Morton said. “This is the opening salvo. It’s only the beginning. It’s opening the door to begin our discussion.” She said the 50-minute sessions will be given to all 4,000 cadets by June 1 and the base’s personnel by fall, in groups of 35 to 50. Then, discussion groups will form for more ongoing training. Chaplain Col. Michael Whittington said rules violations won’t be tolerated, and the academy is poised to take action in response to complaints.