Thursday, May 12, 2005

Academy critic says she was fired


Academy critic says she was fired
By Patrick O'Driscoll, USA TODAY

COLORADO SPRINGS — An Air Force Academy chaplain who co-wrote a report last year that criticized "strident" evangelizing of cadets by Christian officers said Wednesday that she was fired by the academy's head chaplain.

The chaplain, Capt. Melinda Morton, spoke out as a Pentagon task force began a three-day visit to the academy here to examine complaints of Christian religious bias on campus. It is to report back to the Pentagon by May 23.

Morton, a Lutheran minister and executive officer to the chief chaplain, Col. Michael Whittington, said in an interview that he dismissed her from that job last week. She said it happened after he pressured her to deny details of what happened at a religious service that was held during last summer's training for new cadets.

Whittington could not be reached for comment. Academy spokesman Johnny Whitaker said the head chaplain made no mention of the religion dispute in moving Morton aside. Whitaker said Whittington sent Morton an e-mail May 4 saying he was shifting her duties to another chaplain "to ensure a smooth and complete transition" for new leaders.

Both Morton and Whittington already were scheduled to leave the academy this year — she to an overseas assignment this summer and he to retire.

Morton, however, said the transition is an excuse. "This isn't about me and getting fired. It's about malfeasance in the chaplaincy here," she said.

Conflicting accounts

Morton, 48, a former missile launch officer who became a chaplain later in her career, remains an officer at the academy. But she said that after going public with her criticism, "I don't think that I have much future in the Air Force."

In a two-page memo last July, Morton and Yale Divinity School professor Kristen Leslie summarized the findings of a weeklong visit to cadet basic training. Academy officials had invited Leslie and six Yale graduate students to observe how the chaplains minister to the cadets.

The Yale team complimented the chaplains for "talent and enthusiasm" in serving new cadets during the grueling, six-week boot camp before their freshman year. But the memo also raised concerns about the "stridently evangelical themes" at a worship service attended by 600 new cadets.

Leslie reported that an academy chaplain urged cadets to pray for those who didn't attend, to try to convert them and "remind them of the consequences ... (that) those not 'born again will burn in the fires of hell.' "

"When we saw this kind of predominant, pervasive evangelical conservative Christian message putting itself forward as pastoral care, we noted it," Leslie said in an interview.

Whitaker told The Gazette of Colorado Springs last month that several other chaplains have denied the team's depiction of that service, because no one said anything about burning "in the fires of hell."

"I can't find anybody who said they said what was quoted in (the Yale report)," Whitaker told the newspaper.

Morton said, "The issue is the environment that we the adults are creating ... in which we set the tone that evangelicalism is the official religion of the Air Force Academy."

The Pentagon task force's visit stems from surveys the academy conducted last year in response to allegations by female cadets that they had been sexually assaulted by fellow cadets.

Write-in remarks about religion produced at least 55 complaints, including reports of slurs against non-Christians and preferential treatment for "born again" cadets. About half the 4,300 cadets also said in a survey that they had heard religious slurs or jokes on campus.

In response, academy officials instituted religion sensitivity training for all cadets and 5,000 staff. The training, called RSVP for "Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People," includes hour-long seminars that outline the limits of practicing religion in the military.

Last week, the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued a 14-page report citing numerous cases of religious bias and preferential treatment toward Christians at the academy.

The report also said that two weeks after sensitivity training began, head football coach Fisher DeBerry hung a banner in the Falcons locker room that said, "I am a member of Team Jesus Christ." Academy officials had the sign removed.

'Crossed the line'

Some alumni are also calling for an investigation and question if the task force will resolve the issue. "I call it a mask force," said Michael Weinstein of Albuquerque, a 1977 academy graduate and outspoken critic. Weinstein said more than 115 current and former cadets, staff and faculty have contacted him with accounts of religious bias at the academy.

His son, Curtis, an academy sophomore, said on Good Morning America in February that he has been called "a (expletive) Jew" and other slurs.

An older son, 2nd Lt. Casey Weinstein, 22, who graduated from the academy last year, said in an interview that evangelical Christians are "a large vocal minority that is the 800-pound gorilla" on campus. "They blurred and crossed the line between church and state."

Michael Weinstein and Americans United lay some of the blame on evangelical Christian groups in Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city. Across Interstate 25 from the academy are such groups as Focus on the Family, the International Bible Society and New Life Church, an 11,000-member church whose pastor, Ted Haggard, heads the National Association of Evangelicals.

Cadet surveys show more than 90% of the students are Christian. Of those, about one-third consider themselves evangelical Christians.

"There's a great deal of overlap of on-campus and off-campus evangelism," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "You simply don't find that at the other service academies. Since all of this broke, we have had over 50 new incidents in e-mails and complaints, and all but one relate to the Air Force Academy."

Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family, said Lynn's group is on a "witch hunt here. They will not rest until religion is eradicated from that campus."

Minnery said the academy's most recognizable building, its multispired Cadet Chapel, "is not there by accident. These cadets are being trained to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, to meet their maker."