The Air Force has named a Conservative rabbi to a newly created advisory position to help it deal with what it has acknowledged as problems of religious coercion and intolerance at the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colo.
Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, former national director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, and a longtime military chaplain, started work June 27, according to the Air Force Print News.
Resnicoff, a Vietnam veteran who was a Navy chaplain for 25 years, ended his military stint as command chaplain of NATO. He will advise acting Secretary of the Air Force Michael Dominguez on how to respond to the recommendations of a new report on the religious climate at the academy.
“He has very good military experience,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, who preceded Resnicoff at the AJCommittee. “He has a remarkable record. I know he has an independent line.”
In a conference call with reporters Monday, Resnicoff pledged to expedite the recommendations in the report, which was put together by the Headquarters Review Group and the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, arms of the military.
“We are going to rush, I think, in terms of getting some basic questions out there, some basic ideas out there,” Resnicoff was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. “We want to have something ready for the new class of cadets when they report in July.”
The report, released last week, came in response to allegations from 117 cadets and the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Air Force Lieutenant General John Rosa has admitted that systemic and pervasive instances of religious intolerance have occurred at the academy.
In addition to Resnicoff’s appointment, the new position of vice superintendent of the academy was created and charged with the responsibility for improving religious tolerance at the school. The new post will be filled by Major General Irving Halter Jr.
Congressional Democrats, including Rep. Steve Israel of New York and Rep. Lois Capps of California, have insisted on congressional oversight of the situation at the Air Force Academy. On Tuesday, in testimony before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, Israel recognized the contribution of Air Force Chaplain Captain MeLinda Morton to bringing to light the problems with the religious climate at the academy. Morton resigned the military recently after being reassigned to Japan, allegedly as a punishment for her role in exposing the problems there.
“While she may not be able to be an official witness at the hearing, my colleagues can certainly learn a great deal from Chaplain Morton, who courageously defended religious liberty and respect and ultimately lost her job for it,” Israel said in a briefing before the hearing.
The Democrats’ demand for oversight has been resisted by some Republican lawmakers. At a recent hearing on the matter, Rep. John Hostettler, an Indiana Republican, accused Democrats of “denigrating and demonizing Christians” and charged that their demand for oversight was part of a “long war on Christianity in America.”
At least one Jewish organization involved in investigating the situation at the academy, the Anti-Defamation League, is also urging Congress not to shirk its oversight function on the matter.
“Congress should ensure that the guidelines are followed,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, in written testimony submitted Tuesday to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.
Lieutenant General Robert Brady, the author of the recently filed report and the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, acknowledged the perception of religious intolerance on campus. But he suggested that the problems on campus stemmed more from a lack of awareness of appropriate expressions of faith and inadequate training than overt religious discrimination or antisemitism.
“I think,” Brady said, “there were cases where people have said some things, perhaps from a lectern, that were overreaching, forgetting their position, that put cadets, perhaps, in an untenable position.”
The report offers nine recommendations for change, including training for faculty and staff and increased access to kosher meals.
The report found that Jewish cadets feel pressure to choose their military duties over their religion, and believe the school is insensitive to their needs because of an overtly Evangelical Christian atmosphere.
— With reporting by JTA.