When Albuquerque attorney and businessman Mikey Weinstein stopped in to see his son Curtis at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in late July of 2004, he could tell something was wrong. Normally upbeat and exuberant, the 20-year-old seemed downcast and troubled.
Weinstein’s son drew him aside during a cocktail party mixer for Academy alumni and cadets.
“He came over to me and said, ‘Dad, can we leave here? I want to go off base,’” Weinstein said.
At a nearby McDonald’s, the cadet explained what was troubling him. Recalls Weinstein, “Curtis said, ‘Could you tell Mom I’m going to be getting into trouble?’ I was floored and asked, ‘What did you do?’ He said, ‘It’s what I’m going to do’ and he explained to me that he had been called a [expletive] Jew, accused of killing Jesus by a number of cadets.”
The young man was so upset over the slurs that he threatened to hit the next person who repeated them. He feared he would end up in a military prison.
“I have to tell you, I’ve never been more thunderstruck or more furious at the same time in my life,” asserts the elder Weinstein.
Mikey Weinstein, who served more than three years as an attorney/advisor in the White House during the presidency of Ronald W. Reagan, started his own investigation. After talking to more than 100 people, he uncovered an atmosphere at the Academy saturated with evangelical Christianity. Chaplains and other top military leaders at the institution, he said, exhorted cadets to bring their peers to faith in Jesus. Cadets who embraced evangelical beliefs received preferential treatment, and cadets of other faiths or none found that their perspectives were not respected.
Prior to Curtis Weinstein’s complaint, Academy officials realized they had a problem on their hands. When Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” was released in spring of 2004, some cadets complained that the Academy was promoting the film. That was an early inkling that something was amiss.
Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Pam Zubeck, who has followed the story very closely, reported April 27 that Academy officials brought in a team from Yale Divinity School to examine the religious atmosphere.
During a Basic Cadet Training session, the Yale team was surprised when an Academy chaplain, Major Warren Watties, urged cadets to convert their classmates to evangelical Christianity. Watties went on to tell cadets that those not “born again will burn in the fires of hell.”
Not only was Watties not called on the carpet for his actions, Academy officials defended him, pointing out that Watties had been named the Air Force’s Chaplain of the Year.
The Yale report, issued in July of 2004, was never made public, but a copy leaked to the Gazette warned that “stridently evangelical themes” by staff during basic training could foster religious division.
Team leader Kristen Leslie told the Gazette that Watties’ actions were “wrong on a number of levels.”
Asserted Leslie, “They’re contending the chaplains, within the power given to them, have the right to promote one particular notion of a Christian doctrine. In a pluralistic environment where you have multiple-faith traditions, there still needs to be room for mutuality of consent, and in [the Academy] there is not – even among the Christians.”
From his home in New Mexico, Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the Academy who has sent two sons to the institution, started to fume.
“I decided I would lead a war on this if I had to,” he said.
A member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Weinstein contacted the organization and asked for help. AU attorneys began looking into the situation and were shocked at what they found.
AU Assistant Legal Director Richard Katskee interviewed more than 20 cadets, former cadets, faculty and staff and reviewed other documents and information. In late April, 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.
Americans United sent copies of the report to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Acting Air Force Secretary Michael Dominguez and highly placed staff at the Academy. The Air Force was asked to take prompt steps to correct the situation and to reply within 30 days.
Air Force officials didn’t wait that long. Four days after the AU report was delivered, Dominguez announced that he had ordered Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady to assemble a task force to examine the religious climate at the Academy.
An Air Force press release vowed prompt action. “[L]ingering allegations from sources such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State are being taken very seriously by the Air Force,” stated the release.
Air Force officials promised to conduct a review covering six key areas, including Air Force Academy policies on religious respect and tolerance; the religious climate and assessment tools used at the Academy; the effectiveness of Air Force mechanisms to address complaints on this subject, including the chain of command and the military equal opportunity office; and the practices of the Academy staff and faculty that “either enhance or detract from a climate that respects both the ‘free exercise of religion’ and the ‘establishment’ clauses of the First Amendment.”
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn welcomed the move as an important first step.
“Religious intolerance and the mixing of church and state have no place in any of our service academies,” said Lynn. “Air Force officials must move quickly to ensure that church-state separation is respected at the Academy.”
Lynn added, “Americans United will continue to closely monitor this situation to ensure that the religious freedom rights of all cadets at the Academy are respected. It is vital that the task force take this issue seriously and end the official promotion of evangelical Christianity at the Academy.”
AU’s report contained a number of serious allegations, among them:
• Proselytism by faculty members and staff. Cadets relayed accounts of professors, who, on the first day of class, announced that they were born-again Christians and urged the cadets to adopt the same religious beliefs.
• Instances of upperclass cadets harassing junior cadets on the basis of religion or employing religious slurs.
• A mass e-mail to cadets from Academy Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, which highlighted the National Day of Prayer and urged cadets to “[a]sk the Lord to give us the wisdom to discover the right, the courage to choose it and the strength to make it endure.” The message went on to say, “The Lord is in control. He has a plan…for every one of us.”
• The posting of a banner reading “I am a Christian first and last. I am a member of Team Jesus Christ” by football coach Fisher DeBerry in the locker room used by the Academy football team.
• The practice of marching cadets who decline to attend chapel services after dinner back to their dorms in a ritual called the “heathen flight.”
• Academy policies that permit evangelical Christian cadets to leave Academy grounds to attend religious meetings offsite but deny that same right to non-religious cadets who want to attend freethought meetings.
• Numerous examples of official Academy events opening with Christian prayers.
The report concluded, “The investigation by Americans United for Separation of Church and State into the policies and practices of the United States Air Force Academy has revealed numerous flagrant and egregious violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as a general climate of religious coercion and official hostility toward those who do not practice evangelical Christianity. We have concluded that both the specific violations and the promotion of a culture of official religious intolerance are pervasive, systemic and evident at the very highest levels of the Academy’s command structure.”
Weinstein and other critics say Academy officials were aware they had a problem long before AU issued its report. Early in 2004, Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. John Rosa Jr. authorized a survey of the faculty that contained some complaints of religious bias. A later survey of cadets noted 55 bias complaints spanning a five-year period.
In February, the Academy launched a new program called Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People (RSVP). The 50-minute sessions were aimed at cadets, faculty and staff.
At that time, Col. Michael Whittington, senior staff chaplain, told The New York Times that the main problem on campus was religious insensitivity.
“It’s just a lack of respect, and it’s across the board lack of understanding and sensitivity, not really malicious,” Whittington told the newspaper.
How did an evangelical subculture put down such strong roots in the Academy? The answer may lie in part in the Academy’s location: Colorado Springs is a Mecca for conservative Christian groups; numerous evangelical organizations are located there, the largest being James Dobson’s Focus on the Family (FOF).
There’s no direct evidence that FOF operatives have targeted the Academy, but a top leader of the group has made it clear that he thinks the ruckus is overblown.
FOF Vice President Tom Minnery dismissed concerns of religious bias at the Academy, telling the Associated Press, “The Air Force trains the cadets to make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary, and even to imply that it is wrong to talk about the ultimate meaning of life, which is religious, is absurd.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Minnery took an even harder line, asserting that it is actually Christians who face discrimination and implying that majority rule in matters of religion is acceptable. Minnery noted that 90 percent of the Academy’s 4,300 cadets are Christian.
“If 90 percent of cadets identify themselves as Christian, it is common sense that Christianity will be in evidence on the campus,” Minnery said. “Christianity is deeply felt and very important to people...and to suggest that it should be bottled up is nonsense. I think a witch hunt is under way to root out Christian beliefs. To root out what is pervasive in 90 percent of the group is ridiculous.”
On May 3, FOF’s “Family News in Focus” ran a story discounting AU’s claims. The piece quoted Tom Clemmons, an Academy graduate, who asserted that it’s really Christians who are discriminated against at the institution.
“The secular humanists kind of run the show, by and large,” Clemmons said. “Now, while we do have Christians at the Academy and in the Air Force, it’s definitely a minority.”
AU responded that Minnery was attacking a straw man. Civil liberties advocates have no problem with Academy cadets practicing their religious faith or sharing it with others. What they oppose is the sponsorship of evangelical Christianity or any other religion by senior Academy officers, the toleration of harassment of cadets based on their religious beliefs or lack thereof, heavy-handed religious coercion by faculty and unequal treatment of cadets based on their religious or philosophical views.
As for Clemmons’ claims, Lynn said they are on their face ridiculous, pointing out that secular humanists can hardly dominate an institution that is 90 percent Christian.
In its letter to Rumsfeld, Americans United made it clear that the organization supports every cadet’s right to engage in or refrain from religious worship.
“Our organization supports the right of individual cadets to express their faith or worship as they see fit,” reads the letter. “However, we oppose all forms of government-sponsored religious coercion and believe that the creation of an atmosphere of hostility toward certain faiths and preference toward others in the Academy presents a serious constitutional problem.”
Since lodging the protest, Americans United has received dozens of e-mail messages from career and former military officers and enlisted men and women, complaining of similar instances mixing of church and state in the military.
One Jewish officer noted, “I have learned to ‘accept’ Christian proselytizing in any number of forms. It has certainly gotten worse in my opinion with the overtaking of the Republican Party by evangelical Christians and related politico-religious groups.”
A woman wrote about attending a “non-denominational” service with her son during an open house at a Marine boot camp in California only to find the service was “bigotry enveloped in an evangelical shell.”
Stories like this come on the heels of a widely publicized incident from 2003 involving Army Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin, who gave a number of evangelistic speeches at fundamentalist churches while in uniform. On at least one occasion, Boykin made controversial comments critical of Islam that were reported in Middle Eastern media, leading the U.S. government to issue a letter pointing out that Boykin was not speaking on behalf of the federal government. In August of 2004, Boykin received a light reprimand for his activities.
Lynn, who was disappointed with the military’s response to the Boykin incident, said this time he hopes relevant government officials will respond more decisively. To help the public understand the issue better, AU worked with the media to publicize the goings-on at the Academy.
The story hit the media with a huge splash. Stories appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Denver Post and other newspapers. The Associated Press filed several reports, and CNN and CBS also picked up the story.
Americans United, Lynn vowed, will continue to closely monitor the situation. (The Task Force’s report was due by the end of May, past the press deadline for this issue of Church & State. Look for an update in the July-August issue.)
AU is concerned that some signs indicate that the Air Force is not taking the matter seriously or is perhaps even engaging in a cover up. Even as the controversy raged, the Pentagon announced that Weida, currently a one-star general, is being promoted to two stars. Announcing Weida’s promotion at a time like this, AU says, gives the impression that the Air Force not only supports his actions but sees them as worthy of a reward.
Perhaps more disturbingly, a chaplain who has spoken out publicly about the atmosphere at the Academy was relieved of her duties. Capt. MeLinda Morton told USA Today that she was pressured by chief chaplain Whittington to deny details of what went on during Watties’ address to new cadets.
Morton has been informed that she will receive a new assignment – overseas. She told USA Today that she expected retaliation for speaking out, remarking, “I don’t think that I have much future in the Air Force.”
Officials at Americans United say they won’t tolerate a cover-up and will do what they can to defend officers who are penalized for speaking out.
From his home in Albuquerque, Weinstein pledges to keep the heat on as well.
“Other than my wife and children, nothing is as important to me as our military,” Weinstein said. “I love the Air Force Academy. It’s just ill right now. It has a serious illness, which is not just a fifth column but domination in the leadership by evangelical Christians who are not just ignoring, but trashing, the separation of church and state.”