Air Force Academy calls its religious climate improved

DEVELOPING LEADERS Lieutenant General Michael Gould said he is committed to fostering respect for Air Force cadets of all beliefs. DEVELOPING LEADERS
Lieutenant General Michael Gould said he is committed to fostering respect for Air Force cadets of all beliefs.
By Dan Elliott
Associated Press / December 17, 2009

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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. - The Air Force Academy says religious tolerance has improved dramatically since allegations five years ago that evangelical Christians harassed cadets who did not share their faith. Even the school’s most vocal critic agrees.

“This is the first time we feel positive about things there,’’ said Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which battled the academy in court over claims that evangelicals at the school were imposing their views on others.

The academy superintendent, Lieutenant General Michael Gould, says the improvements are the result of a top-down campaign to foster respect and a commitment to accommodate all cadets, even nonbelievers and an “Earth-centered’’ religious group that needed a place for a stone circle so it could worship outdoors.

“If we are going to have success in our primary mission of developing leaders of character, we have to do that based on respect in all things, whether we’re talking gender, race, or religion,’’ Gould said.

Academy commanders say the school has started to seek out the religious needs of its cadets and accommodate them, instead of waiting for cadets to ask. For example, a Cadet Interfaith Council with about 20 members helps identify upcoming religious holidays so schedules can be adjusted.

“There’s been a huge shift,’’ said Major Joshua Narrowe, an academy chaplain. “Previously, if somebody wanted to have special [religious] needs taken care of . . . that cadet had to petition. That was often denied.

“The default answer now is, ‘Yes, go ahead,’ ’’ Narrowe said.

The Interfaith Council meets with chaplains at least once a month to discuss the religious climate and other issues.

The academy, spread across 18,000 acres of forest and meadows outside Colorado Springs, has about 4,000 cadets. The tolerance issue surfaced in 2004 after a survey found that many cadets reported hearing slurs or jokes about other religion and that some felt ostracized because they were not religious.

A Yale Divinity School team said that year it had observed chaplains and other officials promoting their religion during basic training, a rule violation.

An Air Force task force concluded in 2005 there was no overt discrimination by evangelical Christians, but said the academy failed to accommodate the religious needs of some cadets and staff. It also cited a perception of intolerance.