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Defense | Despite scandals and ethical lapses, a mantra of tolerance threatens Air Force Academy's evangelical chaplaincy

Issue: "John Bolton: Take cover!," May 7, 2005

Still reeling from a series of sexual assault accusations in 2003, the Air Force Academy has slipped into yet another public-relations nightmare in recent weeks. Critics have charged the well-ordered institution with letting religious fascism run wild. The supposed culprit: old-fashioned evangelicalism.

During a voluntary Protestant worship service last summer, Academy chaplain Warren Watties mentioned several basic tenets of evangelical Christianity, including the call to evangelize and the sovereign purposes of God. A professor-led team of Yale Divinity School students auditing the sermon deemed such speech a "challenge to pluralism" and recommended future services focus "on aspects of ecumenical teamwork and developing an appreciation of spiritual diversity."

When The (Colorado Springs) Gazette published the Yale team's year-old memorandum on April 20, the story quickly spread to national headlines. Now, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has glommed on to the media bandwagon, charging Academy officials with religious harassment and suggesting that fundamentalist Christians have taken over the institution.

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Academy spokesman Johnny Whitaker labels that assessment ridiculous: "The implication is that the evangelicals are out of control, pushing everyone else aside. That's not happening." Since the sexual assault dustup, the Academy has closely monitored the social climate on campus, inviting the Yale audit of its chaplaincy and conducting its own surveys. Col. Michael Whittington, the Academy's senior staff chaplain, expressed frustration over widespread media hype surrounding 55 complaints of religious intolerance-a number representing less than a dozen cadets dating to 2000.

In response to those complaints, the chaplaincy launched required classes in March to squelch religious harassment among cadets, faculty, and staff. Dubbed Respecting the Religious Values of All People (RSVP), the 50-minute sessions led by a chaplain, a lawyer, and a commander illustrate proper handling of religious differences. "We have to achieve a balance of protecting First Amendment rights without getting carried away," Mr. Whitaker said. "We're not saying don't share your beliefs. Just do it appropriately."

The Academy has also issued reminders of long-standing rules against organized campus evangelism, public posting of religious material, using government e-mail to send religious messages, and endorsing a particular faith from a position of military or academic authority. "It's wrong to use your position or rank for any coercive dialogue," Col. Whittington said, explaining that equally ranked cadets can still discuss their faith as they please.

Evangelical speech within a voluntary chapel service also remains protected, according to an Academy statement released April 26: "Chaplain Watties' messages and sermons were deemed to be appropriate encouragement to his congregation to share their religious convictions." The statement also defended preaching the gospel as "a basic tenet of the Christian faith."

Kristen Leslie, the Yale professor who issued the memorandum, expressed dissatisfaction with the Academy's response, telling the Los Angeles Times that the RSVP training should focus less on cadets and more on those who could effect change-presumably chaplains. Col. Whittington said Ms. Leslie falsely believes that all worship services should be interfaith-friendly. "Every chaplain must abide by the tenets of their own faith," he said.

Stan Giles, a National Guard chaplain just back from Kurdistan whose son attends the Air Force Academy, doubts very much that any military chaplain needs sensitivity training: "I've never met a chaplain who was not respectful of others and fully aware of their responsibility to provide access and availability to religious services for those outside their particular faith group."

Indeed, the Academy's few episodes of inappropriate religious speech stem from outside the chaplain ranks. In February, Curtis Weinstein told ABC he'd endured anti-Semitic verbal abuse from a fellow cadet. Critics eager to portray the problem as rampant have lumped such actions with more common and tame religious behavior, such as a student-run campaign to promote The Passion of the Christ-or an evangelical chaplain preaching evangelical themes.

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