The opening of the worship area at the Colorado Springs academy had been hailed as a step for religious tolerance.
Reporting from Denver - The Air Force Academy, stung several years ago by accusations of Christian bias, has erected a new outdoor worship area for pagans and other practitioners of Earth-based religions.
But its opening, heralded as a sign of a more tolerant religious climate at the academy in Colorado Springs, was marred by the discovery two weeks ago of a large wooden cross placed there.
"We've been making great progress at the Air Force Academy. This is clearly a setback," said Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the academy. He is founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation who often has tangled with the academy over such issues.
Although he credits the academy's superintendent, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, with an improved climate of religious tolerance, Weinstein criticized other academy officials as trivializing the incident, which he said was not revealed to cadets.
Rhetorically addressing academy officials, Weinstein said Tuesday, "It's been two weeks -- were you going to get around to telling them about this horrible thing that happened, and why haven't you?"
Academy spokesman John Van Winkle said officials did report the situation to those on base and issued a message reiterating the school's policy of religious tolerance and respect.
In a statement, Gould said, "We absolutely will not stand for this type of destructive behavior. I consider this no different than someone writing graffiti on the Cadet Chapel."
In 2004, an academy survey found that many cadets felt that evangelical Christians were imposing their views and harassing non-Christians at the school.
The following year, an Air Force task force determined there was no overt discrimination, but the academy had failed to accommodate the religious needs of some cadets. Since then, the academy has worked to change that, Van Winkle said.
"It boils down to the key issue of respect -- respect for everyone's right to practice their faith as they choose," he said.
Specific steps include the creation of a Cadet Interfaith Council that identifies upcoming religious holidays and helps adjust cadets' schedules to observe them.
The academy -- which also has worship areas for Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish faiths -- already had a designated area for Wiccans, pagans and followers of similar traditions, but it was located on the north end of the 19,000-acre campus and was not easy for cadets to visit, Van Winkle said.
The new site, a collection of stones set in a circle unveiled late last year, is closer to where cadets live and train.
Modern Wicca is a reconstruction of ancient European pagan religions and is based on respect for Earth, nature and the seasons.
On the weekend of Jan. 17, Weinstein said a client of his organization who is based at the academy spotted a cross, constructed of railroad ties, propped against a rock at the center. The client reported it, and the Office of Special Investigations launched an inquiry.
The dean of faculty, Brig. Gen. Dana Born, discussed the incident at a Jan. 27 staff meeting, according to Weinstein.
Weinstein did not attend the meeting but said that faculty members who attended described the official reaction as tepid. One faculty member, who attended and asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, supported Weinstein's characterization of the meeting.
The reaction would have been stronger, Weinstein said, if another worship center were involved. Had a swastika been placed in the Jewish chapel, "heads would be rolling," he said.
Van Winkle said he saw video of Born's address: "She downplayed nothing. She addressed the expectations, the issue and moved on."
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
By Chris Rodda
In recent weeks, there has been a pretty steady stream of articles reporting on the much improved religious climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy, many highlighting the addition to the campus of a permanent outdoor worship area for those who practice Wicca and other Earth-centered religions.
Has the religious climate at the Academy improved? Absolutely. The number of active cases at the Academy being handled by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has dropped dramatically, a trend that can be credited in large part to the highly productive working relationship forged between Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould and MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein -- a relationship based on a mutual respect for each other and a mutual respect for the Constitution.
The New York Times, the Associated Press, and others are all reporting the good news. With the support of Academy chaplains, Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier, an Academy staff member who works in the Academy's astronautics labs, successfully led the effort to erect this new worship site, which will be formally dedicated in March. CNN even made Longcrier one of its "Intriguing people for February 2, 2010."
This all sounds great, right? Problem solved. No more Christian supremacy at the Air Force Academy. A new era of complete respect and equality has been ushered in. Well, not quite. A photo sent to MRFF tells a somewhat different story. Take a look at the message left by some of the Academy's brave, anonymous Christian supremacists who recently decided to pay a little visit to the new worship site.
"The abhorrent placing of a large, wooden cross at the official worship site of the United States Air Force Academy's earth-centered religions is nothing short of a despicable, cold and calculated hate crime of the most serious magnitude. That's the bad news. The good news is that the Academy's leader, Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, is acting swiftly and decisively on multiple levels to effectively deal with this heinous act of unconstitutional fundamentalist Christian supremacy," said Weinstein, who has been in contact with Gould since being informed of the incident. "MRFF has been advised that official investigations are underway to try to ascertain who committed this act of religious hatred, and precautions are being put in place to ensure that the chances of something like this happening again are very small. In years past, the Academy was making zero progress in the area of religious respect, often falling backwards in fact. Now, fortunately, we're in a crawl, walk, run mode; right now 'between fast crawl and slow walk.' This is progress; slow but steady. It is MRFF's reasonable expectation that every person who lives and/or works at the Air Force Academy will be swiftly debriefed as to (1) the specifics of what has, sadly, just transpired, and, (2) that there exists an absolute 'zero tolerance' policy for such disgraceful and cowardly acts of religious ambush."
In spite of the progress made under Lt. Gen. Gould's leadership, some MRFF clients at the Academy continue to harbor fears of harassment or worse for openly practicing non-mainstream religions.
As one client expressed in an e-mail sent to Weinstein just last night:
"You should see the hate spewing on some of these websites where the 'Circle' article has been posted. These are the people I'm worried about. Do I need to warn my cadets to fear for their safety now? How sad would that be if our victory turns into a tragedy due to the ignorance and hate from the fundies!"
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
By Pam Zubeck
Even as the Air Force Academy bragged about its open-mindedness in allowing the construction of a prayer circle for earth worshippers, somebody doesn't approve. As you can see by this photo, taken the weekend of Jan. 16, someone has a problem with those who don't buy into Christianity.
The incident caught the attention of Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation who first raised the religious intolerance issue at the academy in 2005.
But Weinstein, an academy grad, praises AFA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, who immediately ordered the cross removed and admonished base personnel.
"This is an instance of how to do things differently," Weinstein says of Gould's head-on attack of those intolerant of others' beliefs. "We're very pleased. The academy is trying to address this."
But Weinstein also is concerned about the incident pointing up "terrible underlying disrespect for the U.S. Constitution."
"We have to be on it every second of the day," he says.
Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier, who sponsors the group and describes himself as a Pagan, told the Associated Press he's heard no criticism of the new worship space but its presence was just made public.
"So far we haven't had any real issues," he says. Really? Perhaps he isn't aware of the cross incident. He says 15 to 20 cadets have shown an interest in Earth-centered beliefs, and eight to 10 regularly attend Monday night meetings.
The prayer circle, on a hill overlooking the Cadet Chapel and Visitors Center, is to be dedicated in March.