Publication:Colo Spgs Gazette; Date:Mar 6, 2005; Section:Metro; Page Number:29


AFA says it’s fighting bias issue head-on

Grad describes ‘cultish’ climate

By PAM ZUBECK THE GAZETTE



    One day last April, David Antoon and his son sat quietly in a chapel pew.

    Up front, 10 uniformed Christian preachers boasted about a weekly Bible study program that draws 800 students.

    “Amen,” one pastor said.

    The Antoons had come from Dayton, Ohio, for appointee orientation. The teen was on the verge of embarking on his lifelong dream to attend the Air Force Academy.

    T h e y were surprised by the chaplains’ zeal, and that the scene unfolded at the tax-funded academy, which like other arms of the military is charged with defending the U.S. Constitution and its separation of church and state.

    “It was like a southern revival,” said Antoon, a 1970 academy graduate. He described the atmosphere during the two-day orientation as “cultish.”

    That atmosphere played a role in the teen’s decision to forgo his appointment and attend Ohio State University.

    Academy officials say they learned of religious bias problems a year ago from a faculty survey; subsequent events underscored the problem, and the academy has ordered mandatory religious sensitivity training starting this month.

    At issue are claims that the academy gives preferential treatment to Christians and is insensitive to other faiths and nonbelievers.

    “We know we have issues here,” academy spokesman Johnny Whitaker said. “We are dealing with this. I challenge you to find another institution who’s facing this issue . . . as head-on as this academy is doing.”

    Still, the academy faces a challenge. On Feb. 25, football coach Fisher DeBerry said religion is “what we’re all about.” DeBerry, counseled in November for promoting Christianity to players, says he leads his team in prayers to an inclusive “master coach.”

    But one former player disputed that. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the active-duty officer said, “Before games, we’d always
have prayer, and it was always to Jesus Christ. He never acknowledged there were other belief systems.”

    The player said the academy’s atmosphere was dominated by Christianity and that it was common for cadets to try to convert others.

    Whitaker brushed aside such observations, along with the Antoons’ perceptions.

    “This is the first time this has been brought to anyone’s attention,” Whitaker told The Gazette. “If the appointee decides not to come, they look for reasons not to come. This might have been just a reason not to accept an appointment.”

    Despite growing media attention and criticism from graduates, the academy has conducted only one training session — for 300 cadet leaders, faculty and staff members Nov. 2. Further training stalled as officials struggled with what to do. Academy officials and the Association of Graduates, an alumni group, maintain the problem isn’t systemic.

    The most recent setback came when the academy’s plan to hire a Los Angeles consultant to conduct a “spiritual assessment” was foiled when another contractor expressed interest. That forced the academy to competitively bid the contract, a process expected to take two months.

    Meanwhile, a team from Yale University’s Graduate School of Religion and Ethics, without pay, will review a 50-minute sensitivity training program developed in the past few months by Vice Commandant Col. Deb Gray and an academy group that works on “culture issues.” That training will be presented to groups of 35 to 50 from late March through May.

    “The idea is to put out these scenarios, religious situations involving people talking about their religion and accommodating it,” said Whitaker, noting the training relies in part on film clips and will be moderated by a chaplain, a lawyer and a commander.

    The spiritual assessment contract calls for an analysis of the climate and how the academy’s programs contribute to it. The contractor, Whitaker said, “will make recommendations on the bounds we need to operate in as a federal institution, keeping in mind the rights afforded everyone under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

    Religious bias problems should be acknowledged by the entire military, said Army 1st Sgt. Kathleen Johnson, based in Kaiserslautern, Germany. The founder of the 350-member Military Association of Atheists and Free Thinkers, Johnson said Christian beliefs saturate every branch.

    She’s attended hundreds of graduations, promotions and other military ceremonies that include only Christian prayers.

    “There is never any attempt to make these prayers inclusive in any way, shape or form,” she said. “It’s always a prayer ‘in Jesus’ name we pray,’ always. For those of us who are not Christian, we are forced by regulation to stand up and participate whether we want to or not.”

    A sailor who belongs to the military atheist group told Johnson that Christian prayers are broadcast over his ship’s speakers.

    Johnson has been preached to about Christianity and had Christian fliers left on her desk and car by fellow service members. When one subordinate found out she is an atheist, he filed a complaint — not because of her actions, but simply because she is an atheist.

    “I don’t want peers to fear talking to me because they think my heathenism, which they call it, will rub off on them,” she said. “I want to be free to believe what I believe and let my peers and subordinates believe what they believe.”

    She said there have been times during her 20-year career she hid her beliefs for fear of losing out on promotions.

    Johnson is troubled by the academy situation, because, “These are our future leaders. The stage is being set right there in their formative years what they can expect as leaders, and the message is, ‘You better be Christian and support Christians, or you’re in trouble.’”

    Antoon said he detected that message during his academy visit. At the chapel meeting, only the Christian faith was represented, he said, although the academy said that’s not the usual procedure. The academy has 15 Christian chaplains and one rabbi.

    The meeting was one of a series across campus designed to familiarize appointees with various programs and facilities during their two-day visits.

    Antoon said many graduates who post comments on a graduate Web site are disturbed by what they see as an alignment of the academy with evangelical Christianity. One suggested on the Web site that the name be changed to the Rocky Mountain Bible College.

    Antoon, who was raised in a Catholic and Protestant family but claims no religious affiliation, said he’s leery when a particular philosophy forms the underpinnings of an institution. “You’re teaching people to be followers, not leaders.”

    When he was a cadet, he said, religion wasn’t promoted or discussed by academy leaders. “The Air Force Academy is not the same institution I attended,” he said. “I am saddened at what has happened.”

CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0238 or

    zubeck@gazette.com

    CHRONOLOGY

    OF BIAS ISSUES


    2004

    February:
Faculty survey reveals religious insensitivity among staff.

    March: Staff and cadet complaints arise over distribution of “The Passion of the Christ” posters.

    May: An atheist cadet files a complaint with the Air Force Inspector General, alleging an atmosphere “systematically biased against any cadet that does not overtly espouse Christianity.”

    August: A cadet survey shows more than half of cadets have heard religious slurs, comments and jokes, and 32 percent of non-Christian cadets say Christian cadets are given preferential treatment.

    November: The academy says it has received 55 complaints dating to 2000 about harassment or intolerant comments. One cadet was called a “Christ killer” by another cadet who was not punished.

    November: The academy orders a banner removed from the athletic department that said, “I am a Christian first and last . . . I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.” Officials counsel football coach Fisher DeBerry about it.

    2005

    Feb. 25:
DeBerry says religion is what the academy is all about and that he will consider continuing his team prayers. Academy leaders meet with DeBerry again but decline to disclose specifics, saying only “they’ve had conversations.”

    March: Sensitivity training set to begin March 29. IN THEIR WORDS

“There is never any attempt to make these prayers inclusive in any way, shape or form. “It’s always a prayer ‘in Jesus’ name we pray,’ always.”

ARMY 1ST SGT. KATHLEEN JOHNSON —

Founder of the Military Association of Atheists and Free Thinkers

“We know we have issues here. We are dealing with this. I challenge you to find another institution who’s facing this issue . . . as head-on as this academy is doing.”

JOHNNY WHITAKER —

Air Force Academy spokesman