ADL Statement on the Religious Climate
at The U.S. Air Force Academy
House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee On Military Personnel
Posted: June 28, 2005
We welcome the House Armed Service Committee, Subcommittee on Military Personnel hearings today on the religious climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA). We are submitting this statement for inclusion in the official hearings record to convey our views about what has been described as a climate of religious intolerance for members of minority religions at the USAFA, to raise concerns about instances of inappropriate proselytizing at that honored federal institution, and to make several recommendations as to steps the USAFA, other military service academies, the U.S. Air Force, and all branches of the military should take to address these issues. We very much appreciate the fact that the Subcommittee is devoting time for these hearings to address these important issues.
For over 90 years, the Anti-Defamation League has been an ardent advocate for religious freedom for all Americans - whether they are in majority or minority. The League has been a leading national organization promoting interfaith cooperation and intergroup understanding. Through its A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute, ADL provides diversity and anti-bias training and resources for the community, schools and law enforcement officials.
The League welcomed the efforts outlined by the U.S. Air Force on June 22 to address the climate of religious intolerance at the USAFA. "The Report of the Headquarters Review Group Concerning the Religious Climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy" confirmed many of ADL's concerns and those raised by cadets, staff chaplains, civilian observers and military personnel that a persistent pattern of religious intolerance has existed at the academy, and that change is necessary.
The League has been in the forefront in urging an investigation into the concerns of religious intolerance at the USAFA in Colorado Springs. The First Amendment guarantees every American the right to practice his or her religion freely without government interference. It is, however, highly inappropriate for individuals at a federal institution to engage in unwelcome proselytizing or to harass those who do not share their faith. Governmental institutions, like the USAFA and the Naval Academy - to which we recently wrote to express concerns about their formal practice of requiring their cadets to stand for an organized prayer before lunch - bear a special responsibility to avoid religious coercion and to respect the rights of religious minorities guaranteed by the Constitution.
These charges are especially disturbing in the context of the military command structure within our nation's military service academies (and, indeed, anywhere in the military) in which instructors, officers, and upperclass cadets have virtually absolute command authority over their students and subordinates, creating a unique potential for undue pressure to conform in order not to jeopardize their military careers.
The League's own research into the climate at the USAFA over many months revealed complaints of a pervasive presence of undue proselytizing and religious harassment, endorsed or at least tolerated by the members of the USAFA administration and command structure. We received strong evidence of an ongoing problem of inappropriate evangelizing and entanglement of religion and training at the Academy. In addition, the League received complaints about an insensitivity to Jewish dietary observances and religious holidays, and instances of religious slurs and anti-Semitism directed to Jewish cadets.
The League's concerns led to meetings with Superintendent Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr. at the Academy and top Air Force officials in Washington, including Acting Secretary Michael L. Dominguez and the Deputy Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady, the principal author of the Headquarters Review Group report. The League's Mountain States Regional Director, Bruce DeBoskey, has played a lead role in investigating allegations of religious intolerance and in shaping the ADL response to them.
The Superintendent of the USAFA, Lt. Gen John H. Rosa, Jr., addressed the League's National Executive Committee in Denver on June 3. He acknowledged that a problem of religious intolerance exists and that the Academy was working toward a "culture change" through education and training.
Lt. Gen. Rosa's open admission of the problems plaguing the Air Force Academy was welcome, and we believe that he can continue to play an important role in helping to implement these much needed reforms for as long as he remains at the Academy before taking up his new position at the Citadel.
The June 22 Headquarters Review Group report is encouraging because it clearly recognizes that a "religious climate" and "perception of religious intolerance" exist at the academy, and that this climate has festered as a result of a "lack of awareness over where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs."
We were pleased that, beyond identifying the current problems at the Academy, the report offered substantive recommendations for reform, including the establishment of clear policy guidelines for commanders and supervisors regarding inappropriate religious expression, a plan to promote increased awareness of and respect for cultural and religious differences, and internal controls and corrective actions to ensure that the Air Force provides a climate of religious tolerance for all staff and cadets. We are especially pleased that the report and recommendations are not limited to the Academy in Colorado Springs, but are applicable to the entire Air Force. We applaud the appointment of a vice superintendent at the Academy to move the process forward.
We were also pleased that, on the day when both the United States Air Force and the Air Force Academy declared their commitment to the importance of maintaining the separation of church and state throughout the institutions, USAFA head football coach Fisher DeBerry - who acknowledged that he was "a central figure in many of the reports and allegations" - issued a statement to make it clear that he will, in the future, be a leading and contributing member of the same team. In his statement, Coach DeBerry described his commitment to his own faith, his respect for the faiths of others, and stated his understanding of how some of his past actions "crossed the line of acceptable practices." Coach DeBerry further stated, "Because of my position as a senior leader and role model here, I understand how those actions could have been misconstrued. That won't happen again."
We hope that the Air Force will implement these programs with all due haste, and that religious tolerance programming does not get short shrift as it has in the past. If implemented effectively, such programs could provide a model for the entire U.S. military, so that respect for religious liberty and appreciation for religious diversity is ensured, and evenly applied across the armed services.
Congress should play a supportive role for the USAFA, the U.S. Air Force, and the other service branches to help ensure that their policies and procedures promote religious liberty and foster a climate of respect for religious diversity. On several recent occasions, Members of the House of Representatives have missed opportunities to complement the welcome remedial steps now being undertaken by the Air Force.
For example, ADL criticized a June 20 vote in the House of Representatives to weaken language in the Department of Defense Appropriations bill concerning the climate of religious intolerance at the USAFA. The previous language, contained in an amendment sponsored by Rep. David Obey (D-WI), addressed reports of "coercive and abusive religious proselytizing" at the U.S. Air Force Academy and called on the Secretary of the Air Force to develop a plan to address these concerns. That amendment was defeated by a vote of 198-210. The House then approved a weakened amendment which omitted any reference to proselytizing.
As the USAFA itself addresses documented reports of religious intolerance and inappropriate proselytizing and continues its efforts to change the institutional climate, Congress must do everything it can to forcefully back the Academy's efforts. ADL will press for stronger language and corrective action to be inserted when this measure comes up for Senate consideration.
We deeply regret that congressional debate over accountability and religious tolerance at the USAFA has too-frequently become partisan and divisive. Moreover, the discussion of the religious climate at the USAFA has itself sparked intemperate and objectionable remarks. For example, during the debate on the Obey Amendment, Rep. John Hostettler (R-IN) accused Democrats of "denigrating and demonizing Christians" and suggesting that those who supported the amendment were part of a "long war on Christianity in America."
It should be clear that the American ideal of respect and tolerance for all religious faiths is not a "war on Christianity." It is, instead, a fundamental American value and the reason why so many faith traditions have thrived in our country. Our military is a prime example of how Americans of many faiths can come together to serve and protect America, regardless of their differences.
Today's cadets are America's officers of tomorrow, who will be commanding troops from a variety of religious backgrounds. US military officers are representatives of our nation, and it is vital that they understand that our country does not promote any particular religion. As American officers, they must model our nation's respect for minority faiths and beliefs and uphold the Constitution's protection for freedom of religion.
We are heartened by the leadership of Acting Secretary Dominguez, Air Force Chief of Staff General Jumper, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff General Brady, and USAFA Superintendent General Rosa in addressing the problems at the USAFA. The same command structure that provides unique pressure to conform within the military - and potential for inappropriate religious coercion -- also makes the direct involvement of the Air Force leadership in promoting effective solutions to this problem critically important.
ADL has offered its assistance to the USAFA to provide its expertise and resources for training on issues of diversity and religious freedom. The League will continue to work with the USAFA as it implements programs to help ensure a respectful and inclusive environment for all cadets and staff.
We look forward to working with the Committee to further these important objectives.
Thank you very much.