Air Force Academy Addresses "Challenges to Pluralism"

Brian McGrath Davis
The Pluralism Project

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.

In 2003, media coverage of the 142 formal allegations of rape and sexual assault on record at the Academy since 1993 - of which no alleged perpetrators were prosecuted - pressured Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to formally investigate the mishandling of those allegations. In the process of a leadership overhaul, the Academy invited Kristen Leslie, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Yale Divinity School, to help Academy chaplains improve their pastoral skills. One of the female chaplains at the Academy had read her book, When Violence is No Stranger: Pastoral Counseling with Survivors of Acquaintance Rape (Augsburg Fortress, 2002), and felt Leslie's expertise would be an asset to the chaplains.Leslie and six graduate students, the Yale Practicum Team (YPT), attended basic cadet training (BCT) to "assess and improve" the care given by Academy chaplains from July 22 to July 28, 2004. The Yale team's findings from that week sparked this most recent scandal at the Academy.

On July 30, 2004, the Yale team's report was formalized in a three-page memo to Col. Michael Whittington, the no.1 chaplain in command at the Academy. Signed by Leslie and Capt. MeLinda S. Morton, no. 2 chaplain, this memo addressed issues referred to as "challenges to pluralism." Morton and Leslie reported that the Yale team "observed consistent specific articulations of Evangelical Christian themes." The memo further explained how one chaplain encouraged cadets to proselytize fellow cadets, reminding them that those not "born again will burn in the fires of hell." This declaration came from Major Warren "Chappy" Watties, a full-time chaplain at the Academy who at that time was the U.S. Air Force's "Chaplain of the Year." The memo concluded: "YPT clearly articulated a concern that such stridently Evangelical themes challenged the necessarily pluralistic environment of BCT. YPT expressed a concern that the overwhelmingly Evangelical tone of general protestant worship encouraged religious divisions rather than fostering understanding among Basic Cadets." On June 28, 2005, Leslie said that the report had been left unattended to on Whittington's desk for 10 months.

In the following months, the Academy responded to the Yale team's assessment. A cadet survey, concluded on August 4, revealed that half of all cadets reported hearing religious slurs, comments, and jokes while one-third of non-Christian cadets believed Christian cadets were given preferential treatment. (This echoed the February 2004 faculty survey, the results of which also hinted at incidents religious bias; the survey results have not been formally disclosed.) On September 15, 2004, Academy leaders sent a basewide memo outlining appropriate and inappropriate use of government email. This was in response to a cadet complaint that his/her superiors (faculty, staff, and senior cadets) used New Testament scriptures as signatures on their email. In November, responding to the previous months' events, the Academy began its first religious sensitivity training following the announcement that 55 complaints of religious intolerance had been filed at the Academy between 2000 and 2004.

On November 17, just two weeks after sensitivity training began, Fisher DeBerry, Academy football head coach, hung a banner in the locker room (with the approval of the team captains) that read "I am a Christian first and last….I am a member of Team Jesus Christ." The banner, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' "Competitor's Creed," was removed two days later. Academy spokesperson Lt. Col. Laurent Fox said in a statement that Athletic Director Hans Mueh, "felt it was not appropriate as it did not represent the religious diversity of the academy and directed that it be taken down." Fox's statement further noted that, "The director of athletics and the superintendent discussed religious sensitivities with coach DeBerry, and all understood the importance of respecting the values of everyone's faith." DeBerry was not disciplined. In response to these events, a team was dispatched in December from Air Force Headquarters (led by Shirley A. Martinez and Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff) to provide an initial assessment.

On March 25, 2005, Capt. Morton, co-author of the Yale report and outspoken critic of the Academy's religious climate, was told that she would be transferred to Okinawa in July; although, in December 2004, she was told she would be at the Academy until the summer of 2006. This came after Morton received notoriety for addressing the media with her concerns of religious discrimination at the Air Force.

On March 29, just four days after Morton's reassignment, the sensitivity training class that the Academy designed, called "Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People" (RSVP), began. Morton and others have accused the class of being woefully inadequate for addressing the problem at hand. Cut from ninety minutes to fifty, Morton complained, it was reworked to promote a more neutral message: respect one another's differences.

Among the most outspoken critics of the Academy's religious environment is Michael L. Weinstein. Following his 1977 graduation from the Academy, Weinstein served as an Air Force JAG attorney and later became an attorney for the Reagan administration. His youngest son, Curtis, reported to him that, as a cadet at the Academy, he had been called a "fucking Jew" and was accused of killing Jesus by a number of cadets. Weinstein responded by speaking out. Consequently, since ABC broke the story nationally on "Good Morning America" on February 21, 2005, Weinstein has reported speaking with over 100 current and former Academy cadets who have expressed concern about the religious environment at the Academy. Weinstein directed his concerns toward Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU).

After two months of investigating documents and interviewing more than 20 cadets, former cadets, faculty, and staff, AU sent a 14 page report to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Air Force Judge Advocate Gen. Jack Rives, Acting Air Force Secretary Michael Dominguez, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper. This report has become the main source of compiled allegations. It begins:

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has received numerous complaints from a variety of sources, representing diverse religious backgrounds, about extremely troubling religious policies and practices at the United States Air Force Academy. We have investigated those complaints and come to the conclusion that the policies and practices constitute egregious, systemic, and legally actionable violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

AU threatened litigation if appropriate responsive measures were not met. AU's findings included:

  • Allegations of faculty and staff leading cadets in prayer
  • Allegations of faulty, staff, and senior cadets overtly proselytizing underclass cadets
  • Allegations of faculty and staff promoting religious events through government media
  • Allegations that Brigadier General John Weida improperly promoted National Day of Prayer, created a call and response system with cadets that encouraged proselytization, and made inappropriate references to God
  • Allegations that the Academy does not adequately facilitate opportunities for all cadets, especially the religious minorities, to attend worship services and events off campus

The report concluded: "[B]oth the specific violations and the promotion of a culture of official religious intolerance are pervasive, systematic, and evident at the very highest levels of the Academy's command structure." (13) Joining AU in voicing concern are the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, The American Jewish Committee, and the Hindu American Foundation. Additionally, 46 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives (among others) have responded with allegations and concern. Since the publication of the AU report, AU executive director, Rev. Barry Lynn said, "We have gotten 50 additional complaints [from military personnel] since this all started. Forty-nine are about the Air Force."

In response to the AU report, on May 3, 2005 an 18-member task force ("Task Force on Religious Climate at the United States Air Force Academy") was assembled by the Pentagon to investigate claims. The following day, Col. Michael Whittington informed Morton via email that she was being removed as executive officer. This followed an encounter between Whittington and Morton in which Morton alleges Whittington insinuated that Morton should deny the veracity of the Yale report. The task force arrived later in the week on May 10. On May 12, Capt. Morton said she was fired for speaking out and on May 16, 2005, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts (D) addressed the U.S. House of Representatives about Morton's demotion, "So we have here not just a refusal to deal with inappropriate abuse of people on religious grounds, but a punishment of a very brave officer, a woman of integrity, a chaplain, a member of the clergy, who in pursuance of her faith and her obligations and her understanding of the Constitution refused to say something that she thought untrue about a report." Morton has since resigned - effective June 21, 2005 - from the Air Force saying, "I did not think that I could be proactive in the way that I needed to be and that the academy itself was going to take appropriate measures in this regard; and in terms of my own integrity, I felt that it would be inappropriate for me to continue on at the Academy."

Meanwhile, on May 9, to the dismay of those alleging wrong-doing at the Air Force Academy, the Pentagon nominated the promotion of Weida to Major General. Also, on May 20, 2005, the Associated Press reported that Weida sent two letters to alumnus Mike Weinstein in Hebrew. Weinstein said the letters showed that Weida "sees me as a Jew first." Three days later, Weinstein, Morton, and Leslie sent a letter to Congress saying that they had not been interviewed adequately by the task force. (Morton was asked very few questions and neither Weinstein nor Leslie were approached.) The following day, May 24, Gen. John Jumper, the Air Force's top general sent a message to all commands worldwide urging religious tolerance and respect: "Senior leaders, commanders and supervisors at every level must be particularly sensitive to the fact that subordinates can consider your public expressions of belief systems coercive. Using your place at the podium as a platform for your personal beliefs can be perceived as misuse of office."

On May 31, 2005, the day before commencement at the Academy, top cadet Nicholas Jurewicz sent an email to 3,000 cadets that included a twenty-two page attachment including numerous religious quotations. There were thirty-eight references to God, five to Christ, two references to Buddha, two references to Gandhi, and one reference to Confucius. There were seven quotes from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and nine quotes from the New Testament. The list of quotes—over three hundred total—also included Nietzsche, Marcus Aurelius, Muhammad Ali, Mother Theresa, and Plato among others. Those alleging discrimination at the Academy saw this incident as proof that the RSVP had been watered down and that leadership at the Academy had not appropriately addressed the issue. On June 7, 2005, the Air Force Academy said that Jurewicz's email was not inappropriate according to Academy regulations.

On June 3, 2005, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, Jr., first in command at the Air Force Academy, said it would take six to eight years to fix the religious discrimination problem at the Academy. To the Anti-Defamation League he said, "As a commander, I know I have problems in my cadet wing. I have issues in my staff and I have issues in my faculty—and that's my whole organization." On June 7, 2005, Acting Sec. Dominguez wrote to Congress saying Weida was being investigated for "allegations of improper conduct." The following day, the Air Force invited a five-person team from the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces to visit AFA to review policies affecting religious respect.

Rocky Mountain News ran an article on June 17, 2005, "Muslim Cadets Allege Unequal Treatment." It describes the plight of the 9 Muslim students at the Academy. In the fall of 2004 (because nine students are too few for an Academy chaplain) cadets attended Friday services at Colorado Springs' only mosque as their schedule permitted. In March 2005, the group of students formally sought exemption for commitments at the Academy to participate in Friday prayer services off campus. Academy officials claim that their request came too late - mid March - for Academy schedules to be altered. The Academy did, however, offer parameters within which Muslim cadets could attain passes to go to Friday prayer services if their schedule made them so available. However, cadets could not miss class, airmanship or aviation courses, military training or intercollegiate contests. They were further responsible for all graded work and had to gain their squad officer's approval. One Muslim cadet who wished to remain anonymous - most cadets interviewed in the past year by various organizations have prefered to remain anonymous - responded, "It had all the restrictions possible on it. We couldn't really get out." Academy officials have committed to working with Academy schedules for the fall (2005) to accommodate the Muslim students' request.

On June 19, 2005, The Citadel announced that they had selected Lt. Gen. John Rosa, Jr. to be the college's 19th president pending his release form active duty in the Air Force. The Gazette reported, "Rosa said one condition of accepting The Citadel's offer was to remain at the academy to set in motion the task force's recommendations." Rosa remarked, "We have unfinished business to do here." The Citadel's announcement came just days before the Air Force task force was set to release its findings on religious bias allegations. "I would plan on staying until the replacement is named. That would be my druthers," Rosa explained, "but the Air Force makes that decision."

On June 21, 2005, the Air Force's Office of Inspector General issued a statement concerning preliminary investigations of the alleged religious bias and religious establishment promoted by Weida. It noted, "Based upon applicable standards, the evidence did not indicate wrongdoing or misconduct on the part of Brig. Gen. Weida with respect to the above allegations." The statement, however, did note that Weida was still under preliminary investigation for his alleged use of a call and response as a means for prosesylitizing. Barring this investigation, the statement concluded that Weida did not act inappropriately by "officially acknowledging the 1 May [20]03 National Day of Prayer" or by "instructing cadets that they were accountable to their God."

The Pentagon's official findings from the task force's investigation, The Report of the Headquarters Review Group Concerning the Religious Climate at the U. S. Air Force Academy, were released June 22, 2005. The report offered nine findings and nine recommendations. Lieutenant General Roger Brady, leader of the Air Force Headquarters Review Group, announced in the press conference that day that he was offering his recommendations for the entire Air Force, not just the Academy. In a memo dated June 22, 2005, Acting Sec. Dominguez said that he accepted Gen. Brady's recommendations as well as the recommendations of the National Conference of Ministry to the Armed Forces which were included in the 100 page report released June 22. He also explained, "General Brady found the overall problem was not one of institutional or widespread religious discrimination, but of failure to fully accommodate all members' needs and a lack of awareness of the boundary between permissible and inappropriate expression of religious beliefs in a military setting."

The task force's findings included:

  • Perception of religious intolerance
  • Inadequate guidance regarding religious expression
  • Training concerning religious diversity and respect
  • Occurrences of perceived bias
  • Accommodation of religious observances (to exclude flexibility in cadet scheduling process and dietary needs)
  • USAFA access for affiliated chapel programs
  • The recommendations included:
  • Develop policy guidance for Air Force commanders and supervisors regarding religious expression
  • Develop guidance that integrates the requirements for cultural awareness and respect across the learning continuum
  • Develop an integrated plan, as part of its overall character development program, that promotes increased awareness of and respect for diverse cultures and beliefs in its military, academic, and athletic curriculum
  • Provide continuing opportunities for all cadets to learn about, discuss, and debate issues of religion and spirituality in a developmental setting with peers and role models

During the task force's visit to the Academy, they were made aware of "seven specific events of what appeared to be questionable behavior, and these events were referred to the chain of command for follow-up."The team also addressed two incidents of religious slurs and disparaging remarks between cadets. The report noted that "both incidents have been resolved to the satisfaction of the complainants." The report further noted the need to address religious needs of all cadets during the planning phase of academy scheduling. The report concludes: "The root of this problem is not overt religious discrimination, but a failure to fully accommodate all members' needs and a lack of awareness over where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs."

The report addressed many of the concerns raised by the Yale memo and the AU report. In particular, the report portrayed the Academy as being more responsive and proactive (see Attachments C, D, and G) to claims of religious discrimination. In fact, in an Academy-wide email from Rosa, Attachment D of the report, he wrote, "USAFA is, by design and necessity a pluralistic environment." "We embrace pluralism as an institutional norm," he continued, "because it best provides for freedom of religious expression, protection of minority views, and a robust academic exchange of ideas." The report named no specific disciplinary actions, but noted that incidents were being handed-off to the appropriate chain of command at the Academy. In addition, on June 28, 2005, Air Force officials created a new position, filled by Arnold. E. Resnicoff, to advise both Academy officials and acting Sec. Dominguez on how best to implement the recommendations of the report.

Included as Attachment K to the report was the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces Team Assessment Report on Religious Climate at United States Air Force Academy. A summary of the report is available on the NCMAF website. The NCMAF report alleges a connection between the sexual assault scandal and the religious bias scandal. On page 83 (Attachment K), the NCMAF reports, "Some faculty and staff expressed concern that senior leaders' actions following the sexual assault scandal were based on the assumption that student behavioral problems were viewed as moral deficiencies that could be corrected only with religious (primarily Evangelical Christian) moral values. They feel this has set the tone for the problematic religious climate over the last two years." This remark is also noted in NCMAF's summary statement (p. 2) published on the website. The full-length report further suggests (p. 83), "There is a feeling among faculty members that the faculty is not very diverse in its makeup and that the selection/hiring practices favors (sic) those of an Evangelical Christian orientation."

The following morning, the New York Times ("Obfuscating Intolerance," Thursday, June 23, 2005, A20) responded:

[A]mid its thicket of bureaucratese, the report by an Air Force investigation panel goes on for page after page describing cases of obvious and overt religious bias. But it tosses all of these off as "perceived bias," as if the blame lies with the victims and not the offenders, and throws up a fog of implausible excuses, like "a lack of awareness" of what is impermissible behavior by military officers.

On June 28, 2005, in response to widespread allegations such as those found in the above Times editorial, the United States House Armed Services Committee held a hearing about the religious climate at the Academy. It was attended by Leslie, retired Col. Jack D. Williamson, and Lieutenant General Roger A. Brady.

In an effort to continually reassess and improve the religious climate at the Air Force Academy, the Yale team will return to the Academy in July. Leslie has been invited by the Academy to work with the chaplains to improve their pastoral care skills. A group of Yale Divinity School students and two additional religious professionals with skills in ministry in a pluralistic environment will accompany Leslie.