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Report: Academy grapples with religion in the public forum

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 22, 2005) -- A team looking at the religious climate of the Air Force Academy found an institution grappling with a challenge that is the subject of significant debate in the public arena.

Part of the problem appears to be a lack of operational guidance as to what is and is not acceptable in the area of religious expression, they found.

That is but one of the findings of the group sent to investigate allegations of religious intolerance at the Colorado institution, said Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady, Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel.

"There is a lack of operational guidance that tells commanders and senior supervisors exactly what is appropriate in regard to free exercise of religion," the general said. “There were some faculty and staff, in efforts that were probably well-intentioned, who expressed their faith in ways that were inappropriate for somebody in a position of authority.”

The Department of Defense and the Air Force both have policies that address discrimination, accommodation and the requirement to not restrict the free exercise of religion, but operational guidance as to what is acceptable in the area of religious expression is lacking, General Brady said.

"What are the considerations commanders must take into account when they decide where and when it is appropriate to have a public prayer, for instance?" he asked. "There is no cookbook answer that applies to every situation, but we need to provide commanders and supervisors a framework of considerations they can use to make decisions in this area."

Air Force officials are working to fill the academy’s need for that guidance, the general said.

General Brady was chosen by Michael L. Dominguez, acting secretary of the Air Force, to lead the team of 16 people to the academy in May to conduct an investigation into allegations of religious intolerance at the school.

The team met in open sessions with more than 300 people, including the superintendent, training wing commander, dean of faculty, director of athletics, and other staff, faculty and cadets.

Besides noting a lack of guidance and finding instances of questionable religious expression on the part of some faculty and staff, the general said the team observed that the school in some cases was not accommodating enough to students of minority faiths.

“It is not that minority cadets cannot get accommodation,” he said, “but that the academy was not addressing the issue up front, such as including holy days on the calendar. So in some cases, it made cadets feel like the academy was not as sensitive to those needs, and was putting the burden on the cadet to ask for the accommodation."

Finally, the team found that some of the situations that lead to a perception of religious intolerance at the school come from the youth and inexperience of some members of the student body, General Brady said.

"We found there was a certain amount of behavior on the part of some 18-to-22-year-olds that is less than it should be,” he said. That behavior included religious slurs, jokes and disparaging remarks made by some cadets.

“That is neither surprising nor acceptable,” he said. “We bring about 1,300 new young Americans into the academy every year. Some come from very diverse environments, but some of them have never lived with anybody who sounds different or looks different or believes differently than they do. Sometimes they react in ways that are not acceptable in our Air Force.”

General Brady said cadets indicated religious slurs and jokes have decreased at the academy over the past few years. To further bolster that trend, and in light of recent attention on religious issues, the academy has created a new program specifically designed to help young cadets of any background become more aware of the diversity around them.

The Respecting Spiritual Values of all People program has been in place for a few months.

"This program, which is new, tells cadets that people believe different things and come from different places,” the general said. “We must respect that diversity in our force and use it as a strength in our force."

Respecting diversity in all areas is critical to the future of the military, General Brady said, especially in light of its expeditionary mission in the war on terrorism.

"The United States Air Force, and the United States military at large, cannot afford to operate in any other way than be respectful of cultural differences,” he said. “We must respect each other and respect and understand our coalition partners who may be of different cultures. It is not only the right thing to do, it’s an operational imperative.”