WASHINGTON — House Republicans have killed two measures aimed at requiring the Air Force to submit a plan for ensuring religious tolerance at its academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The measures come in the wake of allegations of religious intolerance and coercion directed by evangelical Christians at the academy against Jews, Catholics and others.
The measures, proposed amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, were submitted to the House Rules Committee and the House Armed Services Committee last month by Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat.
Calls for the Air Force to take immediate action also have been issued by other Democrats, including Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
Several Republican lawmakers are using the controversy as an opportunity to air the view that it is Christians whose constitutional free-speech rights are being suppressed in the military. At a recent Armed Services Committee hearing, Rep. John Hostetler, an Indiana Republican, derided the “mythical wall of church-state separation” as he argued that Israel’s amendment “would bring the ACLU” and “the very silliness that’s been present on… several courts of justice over the last 50 years” into the United States military. Israel’s measure, he added, would “quash the religious expression of millions of service personnel.”
The academy has been embroiled in a furor over alleged religious coercion following the April 28 release of a report by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group. The group launched its investigation in response to complaints from 55 non-Jewish and Jewish students at the academy. One of the most vocal complainants has been Casey Weinstein, a Jewish cadet at the academy.
In the report, Americans United described “systemic and pervasive” incidents of coercion, including proselytizing by academy instructors during class, harassment of non-Christian cadets by evangelical senior cadets, exhortation of cadets by an academy chaplain to bring non-Christians to evangelical services, and preferential treatment of evangelical students, including the granting of permission to attend off-campus religious meetings.
Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who is his party’s ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, said it was “disappointing” that Israel’s proposal was rejected in a May 23 vote. “We need a study of the situation” at the academy, he told the Forward. “It’s intolerance of the first class, it looks like.”
Clinton, a New York Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, vowed that she would not let the matter die.
“Senator Clinton is very troubled by allegations that Jewish cadets have been the targets of slurs and proselytizing by Air Force Academy officials,” said her spokesman, Phillipe Reines. “She believes that the Air Force and the Department of Defense need to take immediate action to investigate these allegations and send a strong message that such behavior has no place at any of our service academies.”
But Republicans remain dead set against any public airing of the Air Force Academy allegations, judging from the May 18 hearing of the Armed Services Committee, at which Israel’s measure was killed.
At the hearing, Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, suggested that, contrary to what Israel was reporting about the Air Force Academy, the problem in the military was that some evangelical Christians feel they are “not being promoted” because of their faith, and Christian chaplains say they are not being allowed to conduct prayers referring to Jesus. “There is a problem in the military…. The problem is political correctness,” he declared.
Rep. Joel Heffley, a Colorado Republican, said Israel’s amendment was “not necessary” because “the Air Force Academy is on top of this.” After enumerating several examples of what he described as innocuous religious expression at the academy being referred to as coercion, Heffley directed Israel to walk around the Capitol’s rotunda and view the murals, noting that of the eight there, “five or six depict a religious theme.”
“That we need to divorce all religion from anything that’s public, I don’t think that’s what the founding fathers intended at all,” Heffley said.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, said, “I think it would be a major mistake for us as a committee to take a position on this that could be interpreted as a move toward one religion or against another.” The committee, he added, “does not accept” Israel’s account of the facts in the case.
Israel described the May 18 hearing as “a deeply disturbing event.”
“The Republicans [on the Armed Services Committee] just jumped on me,” Israel told the Forward. “The people who were coerced were represented as the problem. The people who coerced were represented as the victims.”
Rep. Robert Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat on the committee, backed up Israel’s account. “It was stunning how this quickly morphed into a discussion of how those of the dominant religion felt they couldn’t express their religious views because of political correctness,” he said. “It’s not a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of constitutional law.”
Hunter did not return a call seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Heffley said that “he thinks the academy should be allowed to go forward” with its own investigation and that he “hasn’t seen anything that would warrant action by Congress.”
The Air Force has launched its own investigation of the events, but critics — including Jewish groups — claim that the process is flawed. Among other things, they say that a tolerance program called Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People, or RSVP, was watered down since it was produced this past fall.
One of the most outspoken on-campus critics of the academy’s religious environment, Capt. Melinda Morton, a Lutheran chaplain, was demoted from an administrative job and will be transferred to Okinawa, Japan. Morton said that she was targeted because of her participation in a July 2004 report by Yale Divinity School — leaked to the media in March 2005 — that documents widespread instances of pressure on cadets to adopt Christian beliefs and practices.
The U.S. Air Force Academy is located in Colorado Springs, home to a cluster of nationally prominent evangelical organizations, including Focus on the Family, an advocacy group, and the 11,000-member New Life Church, located across the street from the academy. Many sources contacted by the Forward spoke of a mounting atmosphere of evangelism, citing shuttle services for cadets to and from New Life Church and invitations extended to local evangelicals to teach Bible studies on campus.
The executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, said Republicans in Congress have to “stop adopting a ‘blame the victims’ strategy, and they must stop trying to sweep this issue under the rug.”
“It is unacceptable that Republicans at every level have made every effort to avoid this issue and shirk Congress’s oversight responsibilities,” Forman said.
“In technical terms, what’s going on there appears to be a shanda,” said Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, using the Yiddish word for scandal. “I blame the Bush administration. This is the consequence of the kind of unwillingness to respect the proper role of religion in a democratic society.”