October 6, 2005

Air Force sued, accused of religious intolerance at academy

By Tim Korte

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A Jewish military veteran sued the Air Force on Thursday, claiming senior Air Force Academy officers harassed and illegally forced their evangelical Christian views on cadets at the Colorado school.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court by Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate and outspoken critic of the school's handling of religion.

Weinstein, who is Jewish and lives in Albuquerque, had one son graduate from the academy in 2004; another currently is a junior. Both were subjected to anti-Semitic slurs from evangelical Christian cadets, he said in an interview.

Over the past decade or more, the suit claims, academy leaders have fostered an environment of religious intolerance at the school, in violation of the First Amendment.

According to Weinstein, evangelical Christians have coerced attendance at religious services and prayers at official events.

"It's a shocking disgrace that I had to file this thing," Weinstein told The Associated Press.

Lt. Col. Frank Smolinsky, an Air Force spokesman in Washington, responded to the suit by saying: "The United States Air Force is committed to defending the rights of all our men and women, whatever their beliefs. It would be inappropriate to comment further on Mr. Weinstein's lawsuit at this time."

Weinstein filed the suit the same day that the Air Force Academy's Board of Visitors, an oversight panel that includes members of Congress, met in Washington. Board members also declined to comment on the suit.
Cadets, watchdog groups and a former chaplain at the academy have alleged that religious intolerance is widespread at the school. On Aug. 29, the Air Force issued guidelines discouraging public prayer at official functions and urging commanders to be sensitive about personal expressions of religious faith.

There have been complaints at the academy that a Jewish cadet was told the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus and that another Jew was called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet. A banner in the football team's locker room read: "I am a Christian first and last ... I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."

Also, there have been complaints that cadets were pressured to attend chapel, that academy staffers put New Testament verses in government e-mail, and that cadets used the e-mail system to encourage others to see the Mel Gibson movie "The Passion of the Christ."

"My problem is not with Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity or even evangelical Christianity," he said. "It's that whenever a religion -- in this case a group of people -- tries to engage the machinery of the state, it is constitutionally repugnant and violative."

The lawsuit, which names the Air Force and its acting secretary, Pete Geren, as defendants, asks the Air Force to prohibit its members -- including chaplains -- from evangelizing and proselytizing or in any related way attempting "to involuntarily convert, pressure, exhort or persuade a fellow member of the USAF to accept their own religious beliefs while on duty."

The lawsuit claims that despite the new guidelines, Air Force officials "have made it clear that they have no intent to actually remedy the unconstitutional practices."

The lawsuit cites a remark by Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, the Air Force deputy chief of chaplains. "We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched," he said in a New York Times article published in July.

The Air Force and Geren have refused "to make a clear statement that this is not its policy," despite repeated requests from Weinstein, the lawsuit says.

In June, an Air Force task force said it found no overt religious discrimination but observed a lack of sensitivity among some and confusion over what is permissible in sharing one's faith.

After a July visit to the academy, a team from the Yale Divinity School issued a report last month saying it found lingering problems among the academy's chaplains, whose activities may conflict with the goals of school leaders and the Air Force overall.