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US Air Force Academy Confronts Religious Intolerance

A special commission of the U.S. Air Force is expected to issue a report next week on problems of religious intolerance at the service's academy in Colorado. The commission was formed earlier this year to investigate reports of inappropriate behavior by cadets and staff members at the university-level institution. The Air Force has recognized that there is a problem, and has started trying to do something about it.

"Well, good afternoon everyone. Good afternoon, welcome to our ‘Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People’ briefing," says Captain John Tillery, a chaplain at the Air Force Academy, opening a session of mandatory training designed to address the charges of religious intolerance. "This is not about religion," he continues "This is about respect. It's about respecting each one's right to hold their spiritual values."

The Air Force Academy has already given this 50-minute training session to all of its four thousand students, and is now giving it to faculty members and staff. The officer in charge of the program is Lieutenant Colonel Vicki Rast, who holds the new position of Director of the Climate and Culture Office.

"As a leader, I have to be prepared to meet the needs of all of my subordinates, of all the people under my command. Therefore, I have to understand the diversity and the pluralism that are coming [into] play in today's U.S. Air Force," she says.

That is exactly what activists who have become involved in the issue say the Air Force must do. Rob Boston is the spokesman for a Washington-based group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. It issued a report in April, after the Air Force had begun to address the issue, that said cadets who did not attend chapel services were referred to as "heathens" and that Christian prayers opened many events. Most significantly, Mr. Boston says, the report indicated that senior officers sometimes encouraged cadets to become born-again Christians, and urged Christian cadets to proselytize their classmates, conduct the Air Force calls abuse of authority.

"The types of problems we uncovered in our report dealt with pressure from commanding officers to adopt certain forms of evangelical Christianity,"Mr. Boston said. "And, of course, in a military hierarchy the actions of your commanding officer are very important. So, it's important that there not be any sort of inappropriate forms of religious pressure."

The new religious-tolerance training at the Air Force Academy is designed, in part, to address exactly that issue.

Students, officers and activists all acknowledge that the problem is partly generational. They say that the U.S. military was once nearly 100 percent Christian, and officers, some of them now in senior positions, became accustomed to openly linking their faith to their service. But Lieutenant Colonel Rast, who runs the new training program, says the U.S. military is changing, just as U.S. society is.

"At one time, perhaps, faith and service were directly connected, intertwined,” Ms. Rast said. “But that may not be the case today. Either way, we have a constitutional mandate that says we, as public officials, will not establish a state religion, and that's what we have to adhere to."

One chaplain at the Academy has complained that the training program is too general, that it has been watered down into a bland re-statement of respect for others, with specific religious tolerance de-emphasized. But Lieutenant Colonel Rast says the cadets are still getting an important message.

"We value them individually, and as a collective, and we need them,” she said. “Our country needs them. They bring something to the fight. We've got to have everyone operating at their optimal in order to secure our nation's freedoms."

Lieutenant Colonel Rast says there will be follow-up training when the students return to classes in September.

And how do the cadets themselves feel about the training nicknamed RSVP, for Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People? Reaction is varied.

"I think there were some issue that weren't being addressed within the Cadet Wing. And I think that the senior leadership took a really positive and active role in recognizing those issues," said Cadet Vanessa Muza Teskey. "So, I think that overall the program was a huge success."

"Sir, I did not like the RSVP training," said Cadet Cameron Radon. "To me and a lot of my classmates it seemed like it was kind of the leadership doing something that wasn't really sufficient."

Lieutenant Colonel Rast says the training has at least generated discussion among the students, and she says that is an important first step in addressing the problem.