Non-Christians Claim Bias at Air Force Academy

Jeff Brady reports from Denver, Colo., about recent allegations of religious intolerance in the U.S. Air Force Academy. Some non-Christian cadets and staff members are claiming they are being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs.

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In Colorado Springs, the Air Force Academy is in more trouble. Two years ago, there were charges the academy ignored a pattern of sexual assaults on campus. Now some are alleging religious intolerance. Non-Christian cadets say they suffered discrimination, that Evangelical Christians get special treatment at the academy. The Air Force has appointed a task force to investigate. From Denver, NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

After receiving reports of harassment at the academy, the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State interviewed more than a dozen cadets and staff. Executive director Barry Lynn says cadets talked of instructors preaching in classrooms and mandatory prayers before tests.

Mr. BARRY LYNN (Executive Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State): Well, we found that senior cadets tended to harass non-Christian junior cadets over their religious beliefs, suggesting that--or implying that if, in fact, a person didn't convert to Christianity, his or her Air Force career might be limited.

BRADY: Last November, the school's football coach was asked to remove a banner in an athletics building that read `I am a Christian first and last. I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.'

Michael Weinstein's family has a 57-year relationship with the academy. He's Jewish, and says religious intolerance wasn't a problem back in the '70s when he was at the academy. But Weinstein says his son, a sophomore at the school, has been harassed.

Mr. MICHAEL WEINSTEIN (Air Force Academy Graduate): My youngest son told me what happened to him last summer, where he was being called on, unaware, the radio, `an--expletive deleted--F'ing Jew,' was accused continually of being total complacent in the Crucifixion, therefore, execution of Jesus Christ.

BRADY: Weinstein says he's talked with more than 100 cadets and staff at the academy and says harassment is not limited to non-Christians. He says even mainline Christians have been harassed by evangelical Christians on campus. Weinstein says he's pleased the Air Force is investigating because he says the academy's response to the problem so far has been halfhearted at best.

Academy spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Laurent Fox(ph) says the school has logged 55 complaints of harassment that allegedly occurred over the past four years. In response, the academy started a religious tolerance training program in March; it's mandatory for all 8,000 cadets and staff. About half have gone through the class so far; the rest will finish by June. Fox says the Air Force is taking these allegations seriously because tolerance is necessary in a military that operates around the globe.

Lieutenant Colonel LAURENT FOX (Air Force Academy Spokesman): It's absolutely essential. And not only for the people that you're going to command over but also, it--we are across the world. We are in the Middle East, we are in different religious areas, and it's important for us to be able to respect the beliefs of everybody that we're going to interact with.

BRADY: Acting Secretary of the Air Force Michael Dominguez has appointed a task force to determine if the classes are having an effect. The task force also will examine the general climate on campus to determine how significant the problem is and whether more needs to be done. A preliminary report is expected later this month. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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