No doubt about it -- David Kelly at the Los Angeles Times has found a good story out in the red-zone wilds of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Here's the headline update from a few days ago: "Loosening Religious Grip at Air Academy: The school launches a sensitivity course in response to complaints about evangelical Christians infringing on other faiths." This is a follow-up story to "Non-Christian Air Force Cadets Cite Harassment: The academy, which has received more than 50 complaints, says it is requiring students to attend a class on religious tolerance."
Let me start by stressing that it is pretty clear some outrageous stuff has gone on at the academy, in terms of evangelicals making life uncomfortable for some of the nonbelievers. No doubt about that. Here is a sample of Kelly's coverage, picking one sample out of waves of similar material:
Lt. Col. Edie Disler, an English professor who helps run RSVP programs, said some Christians questioned the value of the classes. "They have said: We are in the majority, why do we have to do this?"
Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate and lawyer in Albuquerque, has a son who is a sophomore at the school. The cadet has been called a "filthy Jew," among other things, Weinstein said.
"This is not a Jew-Christian thing, it's an evangelical versus everyone else thing," he said. "I am calling for congressional oversight and for the academy to stop trivializing the problem by calling it nonsystemic. If they can't fix it and Congress won't fix it, the next thing to do is go to the federal court and file a lawsuit alleging a violation of the Constitution and civil rights."
By the way, that RSVP reference is to the new "Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People" classes that cadets and employees must attend. No sign, at this point, of "Respecting the First Amendment Rights of all People" sessions on the calendar.
This is the problem, you see. It is clear from Kelly's reporting that the evangelical air in Colorado "Wheaton of the West" Springs is pretty thick with spiritual jargon and symbolism. But these reports are so one-sided, in terms of source material, that it seems like they were dictated by someone at Unitarian-Universalist national headquarters. No, I take that back. The U-Us I know are much more comfortable with opposing points of views.
What we need here is some attempt to verify basic facts and accusations from both sides of the story. Who finally gets to speak for the evangelical world? Is it someone from the academy? Nope. It's the totally predictable source -- a Focus on the Family spokesman.
Once again, this is a free-speech story. This cuts both ways, in terms of the freedom of people to voice strong opinions and for others to oppose them. It's clear that some people have crossed the line and pushed their theological agendas in a military forum fueled with tax dollars. But does this mean the academy needs some kind of viewpoint discrimination that is enforced by the state?
Do all student groups lose the right to post news about events? To send emails? To debate issues at the heart of their worldviews? Does this apply to Islam? Orthodox Judaism? NPR listeners? Grateful Dead fans?
Here is another glimpse into that RSVP classroom:
. . . Capt. Paula Grant, a law professor, told participants they must balance their right to exercise their religion with the right of others not to be intimidated or harassed.
"We are not trying to stamp out religion," Grant said. "It's a matter of how you go about it. You cannot use your uniform to further your personal agenda, whether it's religion or sports or anything." . . .
As the class ended, one participant, Lt. Col. Marcia Meeks-Eure, paused before leaving. "I think this sort of thing is very good because it underscores what we are supposed to be doing," she said. "I am Baptist but I won't talk about my faith unless someone asks."
That is chilling, if you know anything about Baptists and their historic defense of free speech. You see, Meeks-Eure has a right to talk to people about her faith in a wide variety of settings. And other people have every right to ask her to stop. That may be a bit tense, but that's what free speech is all about.