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Last Updated: Friday, 17 June, 2005, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
'Religious bullying' at US academy
By Matthew Wells
BBC News, Colorado Springs

Cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs celebrate graduation on 1 June 2005
The academy trains cadets to become Air Force officers
The sprawling campus of America's elite Air Force Academy is silent for the summer holiday, but the din surrounding its role as an alleged hot-bed of religious intolerance is only getting louder.

For months now, unsavoury stories have circulated - first in the local media and now nationally - of cadets at the academy, situated at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, being bullied and discriminated against by evangelical Christians.

The academy, already rocked by a rape and sexual abuse scandal, has admitted that all is not well.

Authorities have received more than 50 complaints from students who felt they were being inappropriately proselytised.

A few months ago, a religious respect and awareness course was established which all 9,000 cadets and staff are expected to attend.

But critics both inside and out are saying that it is nowhere near enough to resolve a problem they say is systematic and endemic.

'Preyed upon'

One man leading the charge is Mikey Weinstein, a graduate of the academy who served in the Reagan White House.

His eldest son is also a graduate, and his youngest son had been there just a few months when he complained of abuse from evangelical cadets.

Mr Weinstein said his son had complained of being called an "f-ing Jew" and was told Jews were responsible for "executing Jesus".

Air Force Academy chapel, which combines a synagogue and Catholic and Protestant chapels
The academy chapel is built to cater to several religions
Mr Weinstein said 117 people had given him examples of abuse. Only eight of them were Jewish, he said - the rest were Catholics, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Methodist.

"They're not used to being preyed upon... by their evangelical brothers and sisters. But that's exactly what's happening."

Mr Weinstein believes that some senior officers are so heavily involved in a culture of intolerance - and the rest are so blase about what is going on - that the entire academy leadership should be replaced.

A Yale Divinity School report and a liberal group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, cite many examples of alleged abusive behaviour by evangelicals.

Examples include placing "Passion of the Christ" flyers on every place-setting in the mess hall to frogmarching cadets who fail to attend chapel into their barracks.

'Abuse of uniform'

There are more than a dozen chaplains who look after the religious and counselling needs of cadets, and one of them - Captain Melinda Morton - says she has been punished for breaking ranks to complain that the problem merits more far-reaching measures than those proposed so far.

Air Force Academy Chaplain Captain Melinda Morton
You are free to evangelise as you want, out there on the street and in your churches. But you are not free to use the uniform
Chaplain Captain Melinda Morton
Capt Morton claims she has become an outcast since she complained. She has also been demoted, and is due to leave for a new post in Japan shortly.

"You are free to evangelise as you want, out there on the street and in your churches," she said.

"But you are not free to use the uniform, and the power and rigid structure of the military to propagate your ideology. The constitution says no."

The fact that Colorado Springs is home to some of America's most powerful evangelical Christian organisations has exacerbated the situation, she said.

"Many of them have particular goals when it comes to people in uniform, that they are there to teach and encourage those folks to use their power and their position in the military," she added.

Focus on the Family - perhaps the most powerful lobbying organisation on the Christian right - is over the road from the academy.

Mega-church

Colorado's largest evangelical mega-church, the New Life Church, sits on a hill just a few kilometres away, looking down onto the academy grounds. Its pastor is Ted Haggard, president of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals.

He boasts his own huge congregation of 11,000.

"Liberal movements in America treat people like they're stupid," said the man whose national prominence means that he talks to President George W Bush most weeks.

"Are we saying that we want those students to understand representative government... but they can't understand religious discussion?"

Portrait of Pastor Ted Haggard
Why in the world would we adopt a view that freedom of speech applies in every area except religion?
Pastor Ted Haggard
New Life Church
"Proselytising causes people to improve their argument, and exposes false arguments. Why in the world would we adopt a view that freedom of speech applies in every area except religion?"

Pastor Haggard says he believes cadets should be robust enough to withstand passionate evangelising. He denies systematic evangelical links to the academy.

At the academy itself, senior officers are refusing interviews before an internal Air Force inquiry into the allegations concludes later this month.

The academy's head of communications, Johnny Whitaker, was willing to discuss the issues, but denies an orchestrated campaign by evangelical Christians.

"We know we have issues within the cadet wing. We know we have issues on the staff and faculty... There are problems throughout the organisation," he said.

"Is it pervasive? We don't know that. We're taking this fairly seriously. A lot of it is just ignorance of the rules and insensitivity."

One of the other chaplains is Phil Guin, a United Methodist. He said he can't imagine any evangelical cadets calling their Jewish classmates "Christ-killers".

"The picture has been painted that we're holding a big tent revival here," he said.

"It's not that at all."

'Against national values'

Events are also being followed closely in Washington and the national editorial pages.

Democrat Congressman Steve Israel represents a district in Long Island, New York. He serves on the Armed Services Committee, and he fears that many evangelicals at the heart of power are happy to bend constitutional principles to suit themselves.

The problem, he believes, starts at the very top.

"Sometimes I think the president and some of my colleagues in Congress have forgotten how this country was founded," he said.

"It was founded by a group of people who fled state-sponsored and sanctioned religious intolerance. Now you have that very example unfolding at the US Air Force Academy," he said.

The argument looks set to rumble on.




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