Updated: December 16, 2009 at 12:00 am
AIR FORCE ACADEMY — The Air Force Academy says religious tolerance has improved dramatically since allegations five years ago that evangelical Christians harassed cadets who didn't share their faith. Even the school's most vocal critic agrees.
"This is the first time we feel positive about things there," said Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which battled the academy in court over claims that evangelicals at the school were imposing their views on others.
The academy superintendent, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, says the improvements are the result of a topdown campaign to foster respect and a commitment to accommodate all cadets, even nonbelievers and an "Earth-centered" religious group that needed a place for a stone circle so it could worship outdoors.
"If we are going to have success in our primary mission of developing leaders of character, we have to do that based on respect in all things, whether we're talking gender, race or religion," Gould said.
Academy commanders say the school has started to seek out the religious needs of its cadets and accommodate them, instead of waiting for cadets to ask. For example, a Cadet Interfaith Council with about 20 members helps identify upcoming religious holidays so schedules can be adjusted around them, when possible.
"There's been a huge shift," said Maj. Joshua Narrowe, an academy chaplain. "Previously, if somebody wanted to have special (religious) needs taken care of ... that cadet had to petition. That was often denied.
"The default answer now is, 'Yes, go ahead,'" Narrowe said.
The Interfaith Council also meets with chaplains at least once a month to discuss the religious climate and other issues, said Lt. Col. William Ziegler, another chaplain.
The academy, spread across 18,000 acres of forest and meadows outside Colorado Springs, has about 4,000 cadets. The tolerance issue surfaced in 2004 when a survey found that many cadets reported hearing slurs or jokes about other religions and that some felt ostracized because they weren't religious.
A Yale Divinity School team said that year it had observed chaplains and other officials promoting their religion during basic training for cadets, a violation of school rules.
An Air Force task force concluded in 2005 there was no overt discrimination by evangelical Christians, but it said the academy failed to accommodate the religious needs of some cadets and staff. It also cited a perception of intolerance.
Gould credits his predecessor, now-retired Lt. Gen. John Regni, for taking steps to "level the ship" after Regni took command in October 2005.
Gould says that when he succeeded Regni in July, he told chaplains and senior staffers they had to demonstrate respect themselves in order to instill it in cadets. He says he relies on the school's leadership to help his message cascade down throughout the organization.
Gould wants the academy itself to respond to complaints about intolerance and not leave cadets or staffers feeling that only someone on the outside will listen.
"It's not that you can't serve (in the military) and have a strong faith. Rather it's about creating an environment where respect, regardless of one's faith, is the most important thing," said Gould, who describes himself as a Christian who attends church regularly.
The strategy includes respect for people who don't practice any religion, he said.
Some Christians outside the academy objected when the Air Force issued guidelines in 2005 that cautioned top officers about proselytizing. In 2006, under pressure from Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family and other groups, the Air Force revised the guidelines, dropping the caution to officers.
Focus on the Family senior vice president of government and public policy Tom Minnery declined to comment on the current climate at the academy.
Weinstein credits Gould for a turnaround at the academy. He says the foundation has fewer than 10 active cases of cadets or staff with complaints about religion, down from a high of more than 70 in 2005 and 2006.
"So far, he's fixed everything," Weinstein said. "I really believe he gets it."
Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the academy and an attorney who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., launched the foundation in 2005 and serves as its president.
In 2005, he and other graduates sued the Air Force, claiming senior officers and cadets at the academy illegally imposed Christianity on others at the school.
A federal judge dismissed the suit in 2006, saying the graduates didn't give specific examples of harm and couldn't claim their rights were being violated because they were no longer students there.
Despite Weinstein's past criticism of the academy, Gould sees value in his arguments.
"I think there are some real benefits to the message he has out," Gould said.
Weinstein says he still wonders if Gould's philosophy has permeated the academy, but Gould says it's getting there.
"I've got some tremendous commanders, and they all get it. I'm confident if I were to leave tomorrow, things would roll along in the right direction," he said.
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Air Force Academy
Military Religious Freedom Foundation