Air Force Academy Embroiled in Religious Controversy

The Air Force Academy says it is taking measures to address concerns that Evangelical Christians exercise too much influence at the school and are trying to force their religion on others.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs yesterday graduated 906 cadets.

(Soundbite of marching band)

MONTAGNE: A controversy over religion dampened the celebration for some. Just a day before graduation, the academy's top cadet sent an e-mail containing Bible passages to 3,000 of his colleagues. This comes on top of complaints that evangelical Christians seem to have a hold on this school and that they're trying to force their religion on others. The academy says it's addressing the problem. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

A team from Yale Divinity School visited the Air Force Academy last summer during basic training. Professor Kristen Leslie was disturbed by what she saw. Evangelical Christianity was present in ways she didn't expect. Leslie says her team watched a young woman involved in an exercise high up on ropes.

Professor KRISTEN LESLIE (Yale Divinity School): And she was scared and was not able to move, and so the other cadets in a way to cheer her on were trying to support her but yelling very evangelical, `Jesus will be with you. Jesus will save you,' and that struck us as odd as a way to motivate someone in an environment that is not intended to be a religious environment.

BRADY: During a Protestant church service, Leslie says chaplains urged cadets to proselytize their bunk mates and warned that if they didn't turn their lives over to Jesus...

Prof. LESLIE: ...they would burn in the fires of hell.

BRADY: The Air Force is investigating the Yale report and other allegations of religious intolerance on campus. Staff members complained about the religious climate in a survey last spring. In response, the school created an hourlong training called RSVP.

Unidentified Man #1: Welcome to our Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People briefing.

BRADY: Attendance is mandatory for all 8,000 cadets and staff. About 20 people attended this session and watched a PowerPoint presentation. Attendees are told to respect all religions and they should feel comfortable reporting people who don't. Three people led the briefing--a chaplain, an officer and a lawyer. Near the end of the training, they opened up the floor for questions.

Mr. DONALD ANDERSON (Instructor, Air Force Academy): How do you go up the chain of command when the further you go up the chain of command, you have people who want to promote religion?

BRADY: Academy instructor Donald Anderson pushed for answers from Air Force lawyer Harold Akers.

Mr. ANDERSON: Our acting commander was talking to us in public about his personal relationship, sending out e-mails with religious quotes on it and telling us that the Lord had a plan for us. How are we at the grassroots supposed to deal with that?

Mr. HAROLD AKERS (Attorney, Air Force Academy): Well, I think in the way that we did deal with it, we pointed it out in a survey that gave rise to this program that should take care of that problem.

BRADY: But the program has itself become controversial. Air Force Chaplain Melinda Morton, a Lutheran, helped create the RSVP program. Originally it was longer and talked a lot more about the various religions of the world, but it was modified because, she says, the Air Force's head chaplain, a Baptist, didn't like it.

Ms. MELINDA MORTON (Chaplain, Air Force Academy): And at the conclusion of the hour-and-a-half program, he looked at us and said, `Why is it that in your presentation the Christians never win?'

BRADY: Air Force chief of chaplains, Charles Baldwin.

Mr. CHARLES BALDWIN (Chief of Chaplains, Air Force Academy): That quote was in reference to my first look at that and asking the writers, `Remind me again of the purpose of this program.' The purpose of the program was to teach the cadets, faculty and staff to respect the spiritual values of all people. It was not a course on world religions.

BRADY: Baldwin says the program was edited to reflect the intended goal. Lieutenant Colonel Laurent Fox says the RSVP program shows the academy is taking the problem seriously.

Lieutenant Colonel LAURENT FOX: We recognize we have issues here. We're going to do some training, and we're going to try to resolve the issue.

BRADY: In the meantime, Chaplain Melinda Morton has been reassigned to Okinawa, Japan. She calls it retribution for speaking publicly. The Air Force denies that.

Unidentified Man #2: Whoa! Let's go, everybody!

BRADY: As cadets lit celebratory cigars in the Air Force football stadium, Lieutenant Matt Maka(ph) said the religion controversy doesn't bother him.

Lieutenant MATT MAKA: Oh, there's nothing negative about the academy, sir. Nothing at all. They fix everything.

BRADY: Fellow graduate Colin Marshall(ph) says he was sorry to see the bad press.

Mr. COLIN MARSHALL (Graduate, Air Force Academy): You know, it's just something that comes with the territory. We live in a glass house and everybody makes mistakes. Ours are just public, but we do everything we can to make up for it and try to correct our mistakes.

BRADY: Not everyone is convinced the Air Force can fix this problem on its own. Critics like Chaplain Morton want Congress to hold hearings about the religious climate at the school. The Air Force counters that a task force is investigating and members of Congress already are being kept up to date, both on the problem and what the academy is doing to address it.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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