March 2010 Church & State | People & Events

In what is being hailed as a major advance in military religious liberty, officials at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs have agreed to provide worship space for a group of Pagans.

The circle of stones was created after adherents of Paganism and other nature-based faiths asked Academy officials for worship space. The Academy already contains a chapel, and officials agreed to honor the request.

Observers say the move is significant. Four years ago, the situation regarding religious freedom at the Academy was grim. An air of evangelical Christianity permeated the facility, and cadets were encouraged to see films like “The Passion of the Christ.”

During a training session for cadets, an Academy 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 poured in to Americans United, and 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 announced 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.”

The Academy’s current superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, has announced a campaign to promote religious tolerance and acceptance of people of many different faiths and none.

“Cadets learn that to succeed as an Air Force officer they must be able to support and respect the people who we lead, serve with and fight alongside even if they do not share our personal beliefs,” Gould stated. “At the Air Force Academy we focus and will continue to focus on respect for human dignity to ensure all personnel respect the spirit and intent of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

Major Joshua Narrowe, an Academy chaplain, applauded the new atmosphere.

“There’s been a huge shift,” he 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.’”

Not everyone is happy with the changes. In February, someone left a large wooden cross at the Pagan site. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier, a Pagan leader, said he considers the action a hate crime. Academy officials are investigating.

In Texas, a right-wing Southern Baptist minister also attacked the Academy’s decision, asserting that it could invoke the judgment of God.

“What we label today as ‘pluralism,’ God called ‘idolatry,’” Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, wrote in a commentary published in the online edition of The Washington Post. “The first commandment from God was, ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’ To openly violate this most basic law is to invite God’s judgment upon our nation.”