Group Details Air Force Academy Religious Bias

Times Staff Writer

Religious intolerance is systemic and pervasive at the U.S. Air Force Academy and, if nothing changes, it could result in “prolonged and costly” litigation, according to a report issued Thursday by a group advocating strict separation of church and state.

The 14-page report listed incidents of mandatory prayers, proselytizing by teachers, insensitivity to religious minorities and allegations that evangelical Christianity is the preferred faith at the institution.

“I think this is the most serious, military-related systemic problem I have ever seen in the decades I’ve been doing this work,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “There is a clear preference for Christianity at the academy, so that everyone else feels like a second-class citizen.”


Lynn sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld asking for a prompt investigation.

“If we hear nothing in 30 days, we will consider litigation and trying to get more forceful oversight by the relevant congressional committees,” he said.

A spokesman for the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., declined to comment Thursday.

“It would be inappropriate to comment because this was sent to the secretary of Defense and not to the Air Force Academy,” said Lt. Col. Laurent Fox.

But the academy -- which is recovering from rape and sexual assault scandals that broke out there two years ago -- has acknowledged that some individuals have gone too far in pushing their faith. There have been 55 complaints of religious insensitivity over the last four years, often made by cadets who feel evangelical Christians dominate the institution.

Military officials now are warning teachers not to promote their religion in the classroom, while telling cadets to be careful how and when they share their faith. Special classes on respecting religious diversity have become mandatory for students and employees.

Americans United talked to current and former cadets and in the report said that it found evidence of a problem stretching to the very highest levels of the academy.

The report’s authors were told that cadets who refused to attend chapel after dinner were marched by upperclassmen back to their dorms in a ritual called “heathen flight.” They found that teachers introduced themselves as “born again” Christians and invited students to be saved as well. A history instructor ordered students to pray before a final exam, the report said. And a Christmas greeting in the base newspaper said Jesus was the only hope for the world; it was signed by 300 people, including 16 heads or deputy heads of academic departments, nine professors, the dean of faculty and the football coach.

The report said that Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, commandant of cadets and professed “born-again” Christian, had developed a system of code words shared with evangelicals.

During a chapel service, Weida reportedly told cadets the New Testament parable about building a house on a rock. The story is meant to convey the importance of a solid foundation for one’s faith.

“Gen. Weida then instructed cadets that, whenever he uses the phrase ‘Airpower!’ they should respond with the phrase ‘Rock Sir!’ thus invoking the parable,” the report said. “Gen. Weida advised the cadets that, when asked by their classmates about the meaning of the call and response, the cadets should use the opportunity to discuss their Christian faith.”

Such incidents, critics say, give cadets the impression that they must embrace the beliefs of their commanders in order to succeed at the academy.

Last year, members of the Yale Divinity School visited the academy and said cadets were encouraged to proselytize to others, reminding those not “born again” that they faced burning “in the fires of hell.”

The leader of the Yale group sent a report to academy chaplains, saying that such overt evangelical displays threatened the religious plurality of the institution.

Academy officials have said that they understand the seriousness of the problem and are working to change the internal culture.

The Department of the Air Force in Washington said that its commanders promote self-inspection, self-criticism and self-improvement in all areas -- including issues of religious accommodation.