It was with happy anticipation that retired Air Force Colonel David Antoon and his son Ryan, 18, arrived last year at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., for an orientation for accepted students. But their pride soon turned to perplexity. On the schedule was a visit to the school chapel. A loyal alumnus, Antoon remembered academy chaplains as a low-key group who made no attempt to press their brand of faith on others. But that day, before a crowd that probably included future cadets of all creeds, the chaplain at the microphone boasted about the huge popularity of Christian Bible studies, and several of his colleagues, Antoon recalls, responded, "Amen" and "Hallelujah."
"My jaw just dropped," says Antoon. "I thought, Is this the Air Force Academy or Rocky Mountain Bible College?" For this and other reasons, Ryan passed up his all-expenses-paid congressional appointment to the academy and enrolled elsewhere.
The Antoons' experience was not an aberration. This week, after a six-week barrage of allegations, the Air Force is expected to release a report based on more than 300 interviews, addressing charges that the academy is rife with an officially encouraged religious evangelization. Critics say the behaviors violated the Constitution and Department of Defense regulations--and threatened troop unity by teaching future commanders overt religious favoritism.
The Air Force has admitted the merit of some of the charges. This month the academy head, Lieut. General John Rosa Jr., who attempted some corrections a year ago, publicly conceded, "I have problems in my cadet wing, I have issues in my staff, and I have issues in my faculty." It might take six years, he said, to change the culture. Yet other allegations are contested, and a congressional fracas over the issue suggests the nation's faith-tinted "culture wars," which have until now spared the armed services, may impact actual warriors.
The first stories appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette. They gained traction thanks to a July 2004 memo by a Yale Divinity School team that advised academy chaplains on rape counseling but made note of "stridently evangelical themes" in Protestant services and warned that this could "encourage religious divisions." The letter was co-signed by Captain MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran chaplain at the academy. She has been reassigned to Okinawa--punishment, she claims, for speaking out, although the Air Force denies it. She has questioned the influence on the school of the many powerful Christian groups headquartered in Colorado Springs, sometimes called "Evangelical mecca." Some groups, she says, "have Bible studies and classes in which faculty members can learn how to evangelize in their opening statements to students each year."
Other incidents have been compiled by Mikey Weinstein, a Jewish graduate of the academy, who was shocked last year when his son Curtis, a cadet, told him he would "beat the s___ out of the next person who ... tells me our people are responsible for the execution of Jesus Christ." A Reagan Administration lawyer, Weinstein began documenting alleged religious slurs and church-state violations at the academy from sources that he says now number about 120, and he alerted national civil liberties groups.