Cooler temperatures at Air Force Academy

USAFA.Chapel.6Four years ago, a battle over religion at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs seemed intractable. Now tempers are cooler, according to an Associated Press story by Dan Elliott. Interestingly, the story, "Air Force Academy says religious climate improving," says one solution to the problem was more religion, not less:

The Air Force Academy says religious tolerance has improved dramatically since allegations five years ago that evangelical Christians harassed cadets who didn't share their faith. Even the school's most vocal critic agrees.

"This is the first time we feel positive about things there," said Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which battled the academy in court over claims that evangelicals at the school were imposing their views on others.

The academy superintendent, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, says the improvements are the result of a topdown campaign to foster respect and a commitment to accommodate all cadets, even nonbelievers and an "Earth-centered" religious group that needed a place for a stone circle so it could worship outdoors.

"If we are going to have success in our primary mission of developing leaders of character, we have to do that based on respect in all things, whether we're talking gender, race or religion," Gould said.

Academy commanders say the school has started to seek out the religious needs of its cadets and accommodate them, instead of waiting for cadets to ask. For example, a Cadet Interfaith Council with about 20 members helps identify upcoming religious holidays so schedules can be adjusted around them, when possible.

"There's been a huge shift," said Maj. Joshua Narrowe, an academy chaplain.

"Previously, if somebody wanted to have special (religious) needs taken care of ... that cadet had to petition. That was often denied.

"The default answer now is, 'Yes, go ahead,'" Narrowe said.

I wrote about the AFA's religion problem for Religion News Service in 2005. Along with others who covered the story, I wondered if Weinstein (a 1977 AFA grad) would succeed in his campaign. I also talked to Weinstein's son Casey, a former AFA cadet, who described a constant barrage of officially endorsed evangelism that he and other cadets endured. And I interviewed local evangelical leaders, including a Focus on the Family representative who called Weinstein's campaign "a witch hunt."

Back then the battle lines seemed solid. But things have been changing at the AFA. In 2007, a Buddhist dharma hall (chapel) was dedicated in the basement of the AFA's iconic chapel building. Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine, cheered the news.

Elliott's story says Gould has turned things around:

...the told chaplains and senior staffers they had to demonstrate respect themselves in order to instill it in cadets. He says he relies on the school's leadership to help his message cascade down throughout the organization.

Focus didn't comment for Elliott's AP article, but Mikey Weistein could hardly contain his pleasure: "I've got some tremendous commanders, and they all get it. I'm confident if I were to leave tomorrow, things would roll along in the right direction," he said.

This may not be last story we read about religion at the AFA, but Elliott's report is a helpful follow-up on an important skirmish. Could world peace be far behind?

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