A top official at the Air Force Academy warned cadets Wednesday that religious discrimination “will not be tolerated” — an admonition that came nearly three weeks after an airman reported that someone left a large wooden cross at the site of a pagan worship area.
The academy’s vice commandant of operations, Col. Richard K. Williams, said the Jan. 17 incident showed “complete lack of respect.”
“This location is to be treated with respect and dignity, just as any other religious structure or location,” he told more than 4,000 cadets in their dining hall.
“Let me be perfectly clear: We will not tolerate acts such as this, which in no way represent what we’re about.”
If cadets are found to be responsible, they will “be dealt with accordingly,” he said.
Religious tolerance has been a sore spot at the academy since at least 2004, when critics drew national attention with complaints about what they perceived as an institutional bias toward evangelical Christianity.
Nonbelievers and members of other faiths reported they were being harassed and ostracized.
An airman who helped build the new pagan worship site, Air Force Academy staff member Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier, complained in an e-mail Tuesday to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation that the academy appeared to have played down the significance of what he reported as a hate crime in mid-January.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations did not interview Longcrier until this morning, on the day the Los Angeles Times carried a story about the cross.
Asked why it took so long, Vice Superintendent Col. Paul Ackerman said: “It’s probably a fair question.”
An academy spokeswoman, Capt. Corinna Jones, said she could not discuss the investigation in detail until it is complete.
“We have no way of knowing it was a cadet. We’re just taking responsibility for it as if it was,” she said.
Longcrier, who works in the academy’s astronautics department, leads a group of cadets who practice paganism and other Earth-centered faiths. He helped arrange a collection of boulders that makes up the site, which sits on a hill overlooking the chapel and cadet area.
The cross, which Longcrier documented in a photograph, was fashioned from two railroad ties that were propped against a rock at the worship circle. He compared the action to leaving a pentacle, or pagan religious symbol, at the altar of the Cadet Chapel.
“My cadets are scared and I’m scared for them,” Longcrier said in the e-mail, which was made available to The Gazette this morning.
He continued: “We have been thrown under the bus by the system we trusted and the hate crime against us has been ignored. Now there are rumors of more hate crimes to come. We do not feel safe.”
The e-mail did not elaborate about possible further threats.
John Van Winkle, an academy spokesman, disputed Longcrier’s characterization.
“We’ve already been talking with staff, faculty and cadets about it,” Van Winkle said. “We’re reminding them what the Air Force expectations are on religious respect and religious tolerance, and explaining to them why that’s not acceptable.
“Most of the community understands that’s not acceptable but there’s always somebody out there that doesn’t, and thus the cross.”
Although academy officials said cadets had been briefed about the incident last week, four cadets chosen at random after today’s talk by Williams said this was the first they’d heard of it.
“Knowing cadets, I would say it was a joke,” said John Kessler, a junior who said he is not religious. “They meant it in humor but it was over the line and hopefully now they know.”
“It goes against the values that we’re taught here,” said cadet Brittany Morreale.
Van Winkle said the academy should have addressed cadets at noon lunch formation soon after the incident.
“It looks like we have to step it up a notch, and we will,” he said.
The trouble surrounding the worship circle comes amid recent fanfare for the Air Force Academy’s improvements in the wake of the controversy.
Mikey Weinstein, the academy’s loudest critic and the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, had kind words last week for the academy’s latest superintendent, Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, crediting him with several improvements.
Today, though, he said he was “furious” the academy waited so long to act after the cross was discovered.
He said he will demand that the incident be treated as a hate crime, not mere vandalism, and pledged to take his fight to the Justice Department if the Air Force Academy fails to proceed with a serious investigation.
He said of Gould: “I’m troubled. I’m confused and I’m disappointed. I’m struggling with where we are right now.”
“Why are we doing this in the middle of the third week? Why wasn’t it done immediately? That’s what’s driving my re-evaluation of where things stand right now with Gould.”
Weinstein is set to address religious freedom in a Feb. 19 talk at the academy, scheduled as part of the academy’s 2010 National Character and Leadership Symposium.