The entire Air Force Academy class of 2014 attended a “religious respect training” earlier this month as part of the Academy’s efforts to continue what it calls a “strengthening of religious liberty.”
The training was presented in 36 simultaneous squadron-level classes taught by Air Officers Commanding (AOC), leaders of the cadet squadrons.
“It is absolutely critical that we faithfully uphold the Constitution in regards to religious accommodation and that we ensure we do not create any undue command influence with regards to our personal beliefs,” said Maj. Rhett Hierlmeier, the AOC for Cadet Squadron 21. “Creating a climate of trust, respect, and tolerance is essential to leading people in the Air Force.”
The program was established in 2010 after the Air Force Academy hosted a religious liberty conference in November of that year. A second conference followed in 2012. The Academy initiated the conferences as a result of the fallout of a perceived climate of religious intolerance that many believe had existed at the Academy prior to 2005.
“This place was shell-shocked when it came to issues of religion,” said Col. Robert Bruno, the Academy’s senior staff chaplain, at the 2012 conference. “No one wanted to touch it.”
Critics claimed at the time that the Academy permitted an environment in which commanders and senior cadets openly promoted Christian activities, creating a climate of mistrust and hostility. The Air Force has since promulgated guidance on matters of religious respect and accommodation.
“The Air Force remains officially neutral with regard to religious beliefs,” said Marine Corps Maj. Christopher Klempay, the AOC for Cadet Squadron 01. “As a commander, I am very sensitive not to force my religion on you, but at the same time, I want to encourage your spirituality.”
Attorney Matt Staver of Liberty Counsel said that while he is supportive of what the Academy is doing, he is nevertheless concerned that a training program that discourages “proselytizing” may cause the pendulum to swing back against Christians.
“If it looks like it’s neutral across the board and respectful of other religions, but then when they say you can’t proselytize, that’s going to particularly impact Christianity,” says Staver. He said issues come up “when conversations about spirituality cross a line into proselytizing—well the problem is where does that line exist? And who makes the determination?”
Although the U.S. military will continue to grapple with clarifying terms such as “proselytizing,” “tolerance,” and “respect,” some religious liberty groups believe such religious respect training in the military is generally a good thing.
“When Service members … are free to express their faith openly without fear of punishment or reprisal, they perform better,” said attorney Mike Berry of Liberty Institute. “The Air Force’s ultimate goal should be to create a command climate and culture where religious liberty is not just tolerated, but it’s seen as a [means to create a] more effective military.”