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Report finds no malicious religious discrimination



Published: Thu, June 23, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Leaders should clarify policies on religious expression, the report says.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Air Force Academy has been troubled by insensitivity toward non-Christian cadets and staff, but officials have not committed acts of overt religious discrimination, military investigators said Wednesday.

A report on an Air Force investigation into the religious climate at the school says academy leaders and the Air Force should clarify policies on religious expression so religious minorities do not feel discriminated against or pressured.

The investigation report, released by the Pentagon, also cites a perception of intolerance among some cadets and staff. But it credited officials at the 4,300-student school in Colorado Springs, Colo., with moving to confront these issues.

"The [Air Force] team found a religious climate that does not involve overt religious discrimination, but a failure to fully accommodate all members' needs and a lack of awareness where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs," the report said.

Pervasive harassment

The team was appointed after complaints that evangelical Christians wield so much influence at the school that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment have become pervasive.

Investigators assessed Air Force policy on religious respect and tolerance and looked into whether commanders encouraged or discouraged free expression and free exercise of religion.

An attachment to the 100-page report dealt with one officer, Brig. Gen. John Weida, who was accused of pressuring students. He was cleared of wrongdoing on all but one allegation. The report did not detail the matter, saying only that it remained under review.

Weida has been criticized for sending out an e-mail promoting National Prayer Day in May 2003 and for a memo telling cadets they are accountable first to their God. Superintendent Lt. Gen. John Rosa last week said he has spoken to Weida about both instances and that Weida recognized they were mistakes.

Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, N.M., a graduate of the academy and a critic of its religious practices, said he was encouraged "because at least there is a report, and it says there is some confusion at the academy."

But Weinstein said he was outraged because the task force "gives a pass" to a chaplain who allegedly urged cadets to tell classmates they would burn in hell if they were not born again.

Resignation

Earlier, Capt. MeLinda Morton, a chaplain who spoke out against religious intolerance there, resigned her commission. Morton resigned Tuesday after 13 years serving the Air Force. Morton's attorney, Gene Fidell, told The Gazette in Colorado Springs that the resignation was not coerced.

Critics, including Morton, have said evangelical Protestants were harassing cadets of other faiths at the school in violation of constitutional principles of separation of church and state in the military.

Morton had said in May that she was fired and a transfer to Japan was hastened because she spoke out about the academy's religious climate. School officials said her move was routine.

Last week, Rosa offered Morton an assistant position on his staff to work on religious issues, an academy spokesman said.

The investigation was initiated after critics of the academy's handling of religion told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that students, faculty, staff and members of the chaplains' office frequently pressured cadets to attend chapel and receive religious instruction. Others said prayers were frequently conducted before official events.

Seven incidents

Lt. Gen. Roger Brady, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel, said he found seven specific incidents that he referred to the military's chain of command for possible investigation. He did not provide details.

The Air Force report cites some incidents but does not provide specifics: religious slurs and disparaging remarks between cadets, and statements from faculty and staff with strong religious beliefs that some cadets found offensive.

"There is a lack of awareness on the part of some faculty and staff, and perhaps some senior cadets, as to what constitutes appropriate expressions of faith," Brady said at a news conference at the Pentagon.

Brady said that in some cases problems were related to the age and maturity level of cadets, who are between 18 and 22. "Most of them know how to behave. Some of them need a little work."

In the cases of faculty or staff who might have made inappropriate expressions of religious faith, Brady said he did not believe they acted maliciously, but said they believed what they said was acceptable. "I think in some cases they were wrong," he said.




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