Curtis Weinstein wants to serve his country as a member of the U.S. Air Force, but lately the young cadet at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs feels like an outsider - all because of his religion.
Weinstein, who is Jewish, asserts that an atmosphere of fundamentalist Christianity pervades the Academy. He's not the only one complaining.
Recent media accounts have highlighted instances of religious bias and promotion of conservative Christianity at the Academy. Academy officials, who in 2003 were accused of moving too slowly after some female cadets said they were sexually assaulted, insist they are working to correct this new problem.
Earlier this year, Weinstein told ABC News he was insulted by another cadet on a softball field.
"He knew I was Jewish and referred to myself and my religion using the f-word, calling me, like, an f-ing Jew, blaming me for killing Jesus," Weinstein said.
ABC reported that during a class on the Holocaust, one cadet told a Jewish student that the mass murder occurred because the Jews killed Christ.
Non-believers have also had problems. One former cadet, an atheist who has since graduated, said he posted a poem about atheists in the military on his door but it was constantly torn off. He asserted that cadets were pressured to attend Christian services and that the academy promoted the film "The Passion of the Christ."
When he complained, the former cadet said, an officer told him he was Christian and considered it his duty to "bring him back" to Christianity.
Other complaints include:
- The placement of an annual ad in the official academy newspaper that declares Jesus as the only savior. About 200 academy staff members, including some department heads, have signed the ad in years past. It did not run last year.
- A statement in June of 2003 by academy commandant, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, a born-again Christian, who told cadets that their first responsibility is to their God. He also strongly endorsed the National Day of Prayer.
- Officer commission ceremonies being held at off-campus churches.
- Complaints that mandatory academy events are often held on Jewish holidays.
- Actions by football coach Fisher DeBerry who posted a large Christian banner in a locker room that read, "I am a Christian first and last.... I am a member of Team Jesus Christ." DeBerry was told to remove the banner.
How did the Academy take on such a religious cast? Apparently, the institution has been heavily influenced by Focus on the Family and other high-profile Religious Right groups that proliferate in the Pike's Peak area. Also, fundamentalist groups have for years targeted the military for aggressive proselytism efforts.
Attorneys with Americans United are preparing a letter to Academy officials expressing concern about the atmosphere there, but indications are the Religious Right is ready to fight. Tom Minnery, a vice president at Focus, told the Associated Press "there is an anti-Christian bigotry developing" at the institution. James Gilmore, former governor of Virginia and chairman of the Academy's Board of Visitors, told Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. John Rosa that evangelicals "do not check their religion at the door."
Mikey Weinstein, father of Curtis Weinstein and a 1977 Academy graduate, has accused the Academy of covering up the problem. Now evidence has surfaced to back up that claim.
Last year, a team from Yale Divinity School observed the religious atmosphere at the Academy. The team was alarmed that an Academy chaplain gave a speech to cadets urging them to warn fellow cadets that those not "born again will burn in the fires of hell." The Yale report also notes that the chaplain told cadets Jesus had "called" them to the academy as part of God's plan for their lives.
The Colorado Springs Gazette obtained a copy of the previously undisclosed report. It noted that the Yale team pointed out that the "stridently evangelical themes (observed during basic training) challenged the necessarily pluralistic environment of basic training" and said the "overwhelmingly evangelical tone" of the event "encouraged religious divisions rather than fostering spiritual understanding."
That's putting it mildly. The bottom line here is simple: Young men and women who want to wear their nation's uniform in any branch of the military services should be made welcome no matter what they believe or don't believe about God.
The Air Force Academy belongs to all Americans. It is not the exclusive property of fundamentalist Christians. Academy officials have a legal obligation under the Constitution as well as a moral duty to end the harassment and cease proselytizing through official channels. The Academy's job is to train Air Force officers, not create spiritual warriors.