Political Response to Air Force Allegations Divided Along Party Lines

By E.J. Kessler

Published June 10, 2005, issue of June 10, 2005.
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In the first political fallout over the allegations of proselytizing and religious coercion at the U.S. Air Force Academy, the father of one complainant is vowing to oust his congresswoman over what he claims is her lack of action on the matter.

New Mexico attorney Mikey Weinstein is pledging that he will work to unseat Rep. Heather Wilson, a military veteran and moderate Republican whose political career Weinstein said he has strongly supported. Weinstein, a graduate of the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., is the father of academy cadet Curtis Weinstein, who has said he suffered from religious intolerance at the school. Mikey Weinstein’s other son, Casey, is an academy alumnus.

Both sons previously interned for Wilson, whom the senior Weinstein described as “a close family friend.” Weinstein said he urged Wilson to express outrage and agitate for action when the Air Force appeared to be minimizing the problem at Colorado Springs. All he got from her, he said, were promises that “we’re looking into it.”

Weinstein, who hosted a fund raiser at his home for Wilson’s 2004 re-election bid, and engaged in other family efforts to promote Wilson, said he feels betrayed.

“It’s a terrible feeling. We’ve been abandoned and left bleeding by the side of the road,” he said. “She cares more about [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay and her Republican colleagues than she does about her own constituents, who are victims of a massive torturing and destruction of the First Amendment.”

Wilson’s spokesman, Joel Hannahs, said that Wilson is doing what she can about the Colorado situation.

“Rep. Wilson is concerned about the reports she heard from the Air Force Academy and for the last eight months has closely monitored the responses and steps that are being taken to improve conditions,” Hannahs wrote in an e-mail. “She has been briefed by academy and Air Force leaders regarding the policy changes that are being made, and she will continue to be actively involved.”

The academy is embroiled in a controversy over numerous complaints that evangelical Christian cadets and commanders have fostered an atmosphere of coercion and religious intolerance. Reports by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and by Yale Divinity School have documented instances that critics of the academy say constitute unlawful violations of church-state separation.

Weinstein, a Jewish former Reagan administration official, first got involved in the situation at the Air Force Academy when he learned in February 2004 that the dining hall there was filled with posters advertising the film “The Passion of the Christ.” His involvement deepened that July when, on a visit to the academy, his son Curtis told him that he was going to slug the next cadet who accused Jews of being Christ killers or who addressed him with a slur. Weinstein has collected 117 official complaints from individuals who say they have experienced religious coercion or discrimination at the academy; eight of the complainants are Jewish.

The issue has become partisan in Congress. In recent weeks, 46 Congress members, all Democrats, have signed a letter to Michael Dominguez, acting secretary of the Air Force, asking him to provide them with a report on the action the Air Force will take to rectify the situation. Meanwhile, a Democratic congressman from New York, Rep. Steve Israel, sponsored two amendments seeking a report from the Air Force on the matter. Republicans killed both of Israel’s measures. Several GOP members of the House Armed Services Committee expressed the view that the problem in the military was not coercion or intolerance levied against non-Christians but “political correctness” hampering the expression of Christians.

A former Pentagon official, Dov Zakheim, criticized Israel’s approach. “Had a serious effort been made to do this in a nonpartisan way, I’m convinced there would have been sympathy for it,” said Zakheim, who was the Pentagon’s chief financial office during the first years of the Bush administration.

Israel responded that Zakheim was “misinformed” when he charged that Israel had not reached out to Republicans. He said he had personally spoken to Rep. Joel Heffley, a Colorado Republican whose district encompasses the academy, and had his staff approach Wilson’s office.

“I would welcome any Republican who wants to join me in opposing religious intolerance,” Israel said. “I agree. It’s not helpful for just a Democrat to be leading the fight on this.”

Air Force officials, after months of saying they were dealing with the problem internally, have begun to respond to Jewish groups that say military officials have not done enough to address the issue.

Last week, the superintendent of the academy, John Rosa Jr., acknowledged in a meeting with the Anti-Defamation League that there are widespread, systemic problems with religious coercion at the academy. “As a commander, I know I have problems in my cadet wing,” Rosa said at a meeting of the ADL’s executive committee, according to The Associated Press. “I have issues in my staff, and I have issues in my faculty — and that’s my whole organization.”

But Melinda Morton, a chaplain and captain at the academy who was transferred to Japan last month after complaining about religious coercion on campus, said she doubted that the Air Force would do right by the issue.

“They aren’t fixing the problem,” she said. “Without changes in leadership and congressional oversight, they won’t fix the problem.”

With reporting by JTA.

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