Four years ago, the situation regarding religious freedom at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs could only be described as grim.
An air of evangelical Christianity permeated the facility. Cadets were encouraged to see films like "The Passion of the Christ." During a training session for cadets, an Aca demy chaplain urged evangelicals to convert their classmates to their brand of Christianity. He told cadets that those not "born again will burn in the fires of hell." Non-Christian cadets complained of harassment and intolerance.
Calls and e-mails started pouring into Americans United. AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee spearheaded an investigation. Katskee interviewed more than 20 cadets, former cadets, faculty and staff and reviewed other documents and information. Afterwards, Katskee and Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan prepared a 14-page report detailing incidents of religious intolerance and bias by evangelical Christians at the Academy.
Four days after the AU report was delivered, Defense Department officials announ ced the creation of a task force to examine the religious climate at the Academy. An Air Force press release stated, "[L]ingering allegations from sources such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State are being taken very seriously by the Air Force."
More than four years have passed. How are things at the Academy now?
We're pleased to say they're much better. As the Associated Press reported recently, the Academy's superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, spearheaded the launch of a campaign to promote religious tolerance and acceptance of people of many different faiths and none.
The new attitude has made a real difference.
"There's been a huge shift," Major Joshua Narrowe, an Academy chaplain, said. "Previously, if somebody wanted to have special [religious] needs taken care of ... that cadet had to petition. That was often denied. The default answer now is, 'Yes, go ahead.'"
When a group of cadets who practice a nature-based religion sought a place to worship, they were granted permission to erect a stone circle. A new Interfaith Council meets once a month to discuss issues.
Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has been a tough critic of the Academy. But even he says the changes are meaningful.
"This is the first time we feel positive about things there," Weinstein said, adding that his group is receiving far fewer complaints from the Academy these days.
Weinstein lauds Gould's leadership, saying, "So far, he's fixed everything. I really believe he gets it."
AU worked alongside Weinstein to raise awareness about the problems at the Academy. We continue to monitor the situation there and in other military contexts. We know that even though things are looking up at the Academy, other problems remain. (Just today AU attorneys wrote to the Department of Defense about an ongoing problem at Fort Wood in Missouri.)
The military is charged with defending the American way of life, our values and our traditions. Among the most important of those values is our nation's commitment to religious freedom.
It is ironic that for a period of time, one of our premier military institutions failed to live up to that promise. We're pleased that the Academy is back on track. No other solution was acceptable.