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Gazette Premium Content Air Force Academy's own 'Godzilla' invited to speak to cadets

LANCE BENZEL Updated: January 27, 2010 at 12:00 am

One of the Air Force Academy’s most vocal critics has been invited to speak to cadets next month as part of the academy’s 2010 National Character and Leadership Symposium.

Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 Academy graduate and the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said his Feb. 19 talk will be his first “non-adversarial” forum at the academy in years.

His talk will center on Constitutional protections for non-Christians in the military.

His message to cadets: “Your personal Christian rights do not supersede the Constitutional rights of others.”

Weinstein rose to prominence five years ago as the loudest voice in a chorus that criticized the Air Force Academy for what they saw as an openly hostile environment for nonbelievers and members of minority faiths.

At the time, Weinstein’s son, then a cadet, complained that he’d been called a “Christ-killer” by a fellow cadet. Weinstein and other graduates sued the Academy in 2005, claiming the academy illegally forced Christianity on its cadets.

A federal judged dismissed the suit in 2006, saying there were no specific examples of harm and that the graduates could not claim their rights were being violated because they were no longer students.

The symposium is held annually and often draws an audience from outside the academy’s campus in north Colorado Springs. Weinstein will appear on a bill of speakers that also includes retired generals, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and a prominent journalist.

“It’s like inviting Godzilla to a backyard barbecue,” Weinstein joked.

He declined to disclose the fee he will receive, and an academy spokesman could not immediately provide that figure.

Air Force Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, who invited Weinstein, said he believes Weinstein and his organization have received a “bad rap” from some outside observers.

“He’s not anti-religious, anti-Christian or anti-anything,” Gould said. “He’s pro-respect. From my perspective, I’d like to give him the opportunity to make those points.”

Weinstein has spoken on the campus on two earlier occasions. In 2007, he debated a fellow attorney about matters of religious freedom and Constitutional rights, and he returned a year later to offer a balancing perspective after the academy hosted three speakers who claimed to be former Muslim terrorists who renounced violence after converting to Christianity.

By his own account, though, this is the first time he will have a non-oppositional forum to discuss matters of religious tolerance.

“When this fight started it was like I was disowned,” he said.

Weinstein credited Gould with improving religious tolerance on campus. He believes it will take more work until Gould’s respectful approach toward opposing religious views trickles down to lower levels of the academy’s leadership.

Weinstein said his nonprofit is now investigating eight complaints of religious discrimination on campus, down from a high of 100.

“It’s going to be a ‘crawl, walk, run’ kind of thing, and I think right now we’re between a crawl and a walk, but that’s a positive thing,” he said.

Gould said the academy began making positive strides before he arrived as superintendent this summer. He said cadets and staff members are able to report complaints to their supervisors without fear of retribution, but that he and his administrators will remain vigilant for problems.

“This is not a cause that we declare victory on,” he said.  “It’s a journey.”

The announcement comes at a time when Weinstein is waging a public battle over the Marine Corp’s use of rifle scopes bearing citations for various Bible verses. On Wednesday, Weinstein called for Congressional hearings to explore the fallout from Christian proselytizing within the military.

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