Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Air Force Academy wrestles with alleged religious bias

Yahoo! News
Air Force Academy wrestles with alleged religious bias

By Patrick O'Driscoll, USA TODAYWed May 4, 6:11 AM ET

A Pentagon task force will investigate the religious climate at the Air Force Academy after allegations of anti-Semitism, favoritism for born-again Christian cadets and conversion attempts by evangelicals on the Colorado Springs campus.

The investigation, announced Tuesday by acting Air Force Secretary Michael Dominguez, will address the behavior of cadets and the academy's leadership. It comes four days after the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued a 14-page report citing instances of alleged religious bias and preferential treatment toward Christians at the academy.

A Pentagon statement Tuesday listed various steps already taken by the academy to address concerns of bias, including a mandatory class in religious tolerance for all 4,000 cadets and 5,000 other academy personnel. But the statement also noted that "lingering allegations," including those of Americans United, "are being taken very seriously."

The investigation grew out of a survey of cadets and staff last year after another academy controversy: a 2003 scandal in which nearly 150 female cadets alleged that they had been sexually assaulted by fellow cadets in the previous decade.

Write-in remarks on religion prompted officials to conduct focus groups during the summer. The academy's superintendent, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, told the school's civilian oversight board last month that those yielded complaints of 55 instances of religious bias in the past five years, including proselytizing by Christians, use of Bible quotes in official e-mail and an ad promoting Jesus in the base newspaper, signed by 200 academy leaders.

The Americans United report alleges that non-Christian cadets were harassed by seniors and that Christians were allowed to display crosses in the dorms while cadets were barred from hanging non-religious items.

The academy is in Colorado Springs, a hub of evangelical Christian groups including the International Bible Society, The Navigators and Youth with a Mission. Across Interstate 25 from the academy is the headquarters of Focus on the Family, which reaches millions on radio and is active on conservative social and political issues.

The most recognizable building on the academy's campus is the chapel, a non-denominational house of worship. The main-floor chapel is for Protestant denominations, which include 60% of Air Force cadets. Rooms downstairs include a chapel for Catholics (30%), a synagogue for Jews (1%), a prayer room for Muslims (less than 1%) and spaces for others.