An investigation by the U.S. Air Force has concluded that there have been numerous incidents of religious intolerance by faculty, staff and cadets at its university-level academy in Colorado. Investigators have made nine recommendations to address the problem. The investigators also said the Academy's leadership is already moving to change things.
Senior officials who presented the report say the problem has more to do with insensitivity than malice. They say cadets, who are mostly aged 18 to 22, sometimes say things they shouldn't, and, more seriously, that teachers at the academy sometimes promote their religious beliefs from classroom podiums.
Lieutenant General Roger Brady, who headed the investigation, says most of the people who engaged in the inappropriate behavior did not mean any harm. But General Brady, who is in charge of personnel issues for the Air Force, wants better guidance provided for officers at the academy, and throughout the force.
"We found that the policy guidance is fine as far as policy guidance goes,” he said. “It talks about accommodation, it talks about no discrimination, it talks about not restricting free exercise of religion, but it doesn't provide useful operational guidance to commanders regarding what is and is not appropriate in the area of religious expression.”
General Brady says officers even need to consider the various religious beliefs of their troops when scheduling operations.
"As you plan operations, exercises, the various events associated with your mission, you need to think about the various diverse groups of your base, and [their] faith and belief systems, and see if you need to work some accommodation issues regarding that," he added.
The focus on religious tolerance at the Air Force Academy came after a series of allegations that teachers and senior officials were using their positions to promote their religious beliefs, and that some Christian cadets were trying to proselytize non-Christian classmates. Activist groups called on the Air Force to address the problems, and steps to end such conduct are at the center of the recommendations in Wednesday's report.
Responding to the report, a spokesman for the private advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Jeremy Leaming, said it is a good first step. But he also expressed concern that the report emphasized what investigators determined was the unintended nature of the incidents of religious intolerance. Mr. Leaming says that contradicts the findings of his group's own investigation.
"The complaints in our investigation covered several incidents of malicious and abusive and aggressive proselytizing on behalf of Academy faculty and staff and other cadets," he explained.
Mr. Leaming says the Air Force has a long way to go to fully address the problem.
Some members of Congress were also quick to respond. Representative Lois Capps of California, a Democrat, also called the report a step in the right direction. But she said it revealed a deep, urgent problem at the academy.
"Deep in the report, you see examples of pervasive and coercive religious environment,” she said. “The report acknowledges what Congress and outside groups been saying, that there is a serious problem at the Air Force Academy, which needs to be addressed immediately."
Officials say they have already been in touch with the leader of one congressional committee to schedule a hearing on the report.
The lead investigator for the Air Force, General Brady, says understanding religious diversity is important for building an effective Air Force, and also in helping that force interact in the broader world.
"We need to understand better the role of religion and culture more broadly on the way people think and act and make decisions,” added Mr. Brady. “That's important for us in a diverse force. It's also important as we work with coalition partners around the world."
Air Force officials say they will continue and expand a new training program at the academy designed to increase sensitivity to issues of religious diversity among students, faculty and staff members.