Air Force Academy Addresses “Challenges to Pluralism” (2005)

Since July 2004, the United States Air Force Academy has been under various forms of investigation – ranging from internal surveys to the involvement of Pentagon officials – for charges of religious discrimination. From these investigations, it is alleged that a “stridently evangelical” agenda may extend back to 1993 and is best described by one analysis as a “systemic and pervasive religious bias and intolerance at the highest levels of the Academy command structure” which challenge both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

The Pluralism Project has been following the news on this case, offering summaries in our online database. Please visit Air Force and Religious Diversity in Religious Diversity News.

Allegations of religious discrimination and bias at the Academy first surfaced during the summer of 2004 when a team from Yale Divinity School, submitted its findings in a memo after a week-long observation of Academy chaplainsA chaplain is a member of the clergy who serves in a prison, a hospital, a college, or some other institution outside the context of the normal congregational life of a religious community.. The memo addressed “challenges to pluralism” which included proselytization by academy officials and specifically Christian references to GodGod is a term used to refer to the Divine, the Supreme being, Transcendent deity, or Ultimate reality. and prayerPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. which “encouraged religious divisions rather than fostering spiritual understanding.” The memo further expressed concern “that such stridently EvangelicalThe Greek word euangelion means “good news” and an evangelist is one who proclaims and shares the good news of Christ. Evangelism is the preaching and witnessing to that good news. Evangelicals are Christians who emphasize the personal experience of G... themes challenged the necessarily pluralistic environment of [Basic Cadet Training].” Kristen Leslie, leader of the Yale team, has become a prominent figure in the debate.

On April 29, 2005, another prominent figure, Americans United for Separation of ChurchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... and State, sent a 14-page report to Donald Rumsfeld and other Air Force officials. This report expounded upon the claims made in the Yale memo and included allegations of anti-SemitismAnti-Semitism means literally “opposed to Semites” although it has always referred specifically to Jews. Modern anti-Semitism arose in Europe toward the end of the 19th century, coalescing social, racial, and religious theories that denigrated the Jew..., the promotion of prayer, and proselytization of underclass cadets by senior cadets, faculty, and staff. At the Academy, it further claimed, was a “systemic and pervasive religious bias and intolerance at the highest levels of the Academy command structure.” In addition, it alleged that Christians (particularly EvangelicalsThe Greek word euangelion means “good news” and an evangelist is one who proclaims and shares the good news of Christ. Evangelism is the preaching and witnessing to that good news. Evangelicals are Christians who emphasize the personal experience of G...) were given preferential treatment in regards to being able to attend off-campus religious events.

Responding to the claims of the Yale memo, the AU report, and media attention, the Pentagon released an 80 page report on June 23, 2005 outlining a task force’s findings concerning the religious environment at the Air Force Academy. The report included nine recommendations which acting Sec. Dominguez accepted. Nevertheless, the report denied claims of pervasive intolerance while showcasing the responsive efforts of Academy officials. No disciplinary measures were recommended.

—Brian McGrath Davis, Pluralism Project Affiliate

View full report:  Air Force Academy Addresses “Challenges to Pluralism”