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In a move that echoes the recent decision of the U.S. Department of Defense to deny Boy Scouts use of military facilities, the U.S. Air Force Academy is warning Christian cadets to curb their faith.
Officials at the Colorado Springs military college have instituted a new training program, Respecting the Spiritual Values of People, to teach the cadets, 90% of whom are from Protestant or Catholic backgrounds, tolerance toward non-Christians. The program follows an August survey that found complaints of religious bias.
Lt. Gen. John Rosa, academy superintendent, gave the results of the survey to the school’s Board of Visitors this past week. He said the survey showed pressure toward cadets based on their beliefs, and that half of the survey’s respondents said they had heard religious slurs, comments or jokes while at the academy.
“Some students had a feeling that ‘If I’m not a Christian, I feel like I’m having Christianity crammed down my throat,”‘ Rosa said.
Rosa cited Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” as an example of the problem being caused by Christians at the academy. When the film was playing locally, some cadets emailed members of their squadron suggesting they see it as a group.
“People felt they were being coerced,” Rosa says
Thirty percent of the survey’s non-Christian respondents believe Christian cadets receive preferential treatment – a perception shared by only 10 percent of Christian respondents. More than half of the non-Christian participants indicated they had “not felt pressure to be involved in religion.”
The Air Force Academy came under fire early last year when allegations of sexual assault against female cadets were aired. Over 65 cadets said they had reported incidents, but their allegations were ignored and, in some cases, resulted in retaliation.
General Rosa was installed as the new superintendent to make changes in the way female cadets were treated. The August survey found those reporting racial or sexually harassing jokes down from 90 percent to 56 percent.
Now, cadets who are overzealous about religion are being targeted for transformation.
Academy officials warned cadets this week against including Bible quotations at the bottom of their academy email messages, reported the Associated Press. “None of this (Bible or personal signature notes) is appropriate, and it says this in Air Force instructions,” said Lt. Col. Laurent Fox, referring to a school-wide memo sent in September clarifying policies for using a government email account.
At the Nov. 2 kickoff for the Respecting the Spiritual Values of People program, cadets were advised by head chaplain Michael Whittington to not hold Bible studies in their dormitories, but he was overruled by Commandant Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida.
“Nobody really knows what the rules are,” a source told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “Chaplain Whittington seems to understand this is a constitutional issue. No one else does. Discrimination against non-Christian cadets continues.”
A spokesperson for Rep. Joel Hefley, who represents Colorado Springs, supported the Bible studies and told the Gazette, “The motto of the nation cadets are trained to defend is ‘In God We Trust’. They are serving under a flag that we pledge allegiance to under God. Religion does have a place at the academy.”
Longtime football coach Fisher DeBerry, who has said in 2000 he keeps a Bible in his office and prays with players, was told to take down a locker room banner that carried the “Competitor’s Creed”: “I am a Christian first and last. … I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.” He had hoisted the banner earlier in the week, he says, “as a motivation for his football players.”
The Denver Post reports academy officials have also removed a long-running ad from the academy’s base newspaper, signed by hundreds of staff members and their families, that read, “We believe that Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the World.”
“We’re getting rid of it because it could be construed as proselytizing and divisive,” Col. Fox said.
Gen. Rosa notes that cadets are merely bringing the religious beliefs and values of their families to the academy and they may not understand how talking about religion with others can cross a line.
“It’s not mean-spirited. It’s all they know,” Rosa said. “We must ensure a climate free of discrimination and marginalization.”