May 17, 2005
The Air Force’s top civilian needs to get involved in an investigation of religious bias claims at the Air Force Academy, a California congresswoman said Monday.
Rep. Lois Capps said she plans to send a letter this week asking acting Air Force Secretary Michael Dominguez to ensure the “legitimacy” of an investigation by a task force that was at the academy last week. Capps, a Democrat and daughter of a Lutheran minister, called the task force “a good first step,” but in the letter to Dominguez, she urges him to “take a direct role” in ensuring a “thorough and public” inquiry. She also seeks answers about a chaplain who criticized academy response to the claims and its religious diversity training and was dismissed from her executive officer job. Capps is trying to rally other House members to her call for an investigation of complaints that the academy favors and promotes evangelical Christianity. The religious bias claims arose more than a year ago after fliers were placed at every cadet’s dining spot promoting “The Passion of the Christ,” a movie depicting the final days and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Since then, allegations have surfaced, including professors urging cadets to convert to evangelical Christianity, atheists made to march in “heathen flights,” and football coach Fisher DeBerry hanging a banner in the locker room proclaiming membership in “team Jesus Christ.” More than half the cadets said in a survey they’ve heard religious slurs and jokes. In March, the academy started 50-minute training sessions for cadets, staff and faculty, called Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People. They conclude this month. On April 28, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State threatened to sue, asserting that the academy is violating the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion. Five days later, the Air Force announced the task force’s formation, not- ing the service takes the allegations “very seriously” but later said the panel wasn’t unusual. Last week, Chaplain Capt. Melina Morton said she was removed May 4 as executive officer after promoting tolerance. The academy called the move routine because her boss, Chaplain Col. Michael Whittington, will retire in June. Capps’ letter to Dominguez said that if the allegations are true, “religious freedom is under assault at one of our premier institutes for training the Air Force officer corps.” Mikey Weinstein, a Jewish academy graduate who says his sons have been harassed as cadets at the academy because of their religious beliefs, commended Capps. He said a “very public” investigation is needed, noting the Air Force has refused to name task force members or their religious affiliations. Sen. Wayne Allard and Rep. Joel Hefley, Colorado Republicans and members of the academy’s oversight Board of Visitors disagreed that the Air Force isn’t doing enough. Allard, who two years ago demanded investigations of claims the academy mishandled sexual-assault reports, called the Air Force “proactive” on religious claims. Hefley said Capps’ push is “pure politics,” adding he’s confident the service will thoroughly investigate and “come up with a reasonable solution.” The Air Force issued a statement of its respect of all beliefs and the review. Officials refused to discuss the review or academy visit. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0238 or email@example.com