I've long been fascinated by stories about religious practice at the service academies. My brother attended the Air Force Academy in the 1990s and the religious pressure there was quite strong. His commanders didn't quite accept that the generic Protestant service at the beautiful chapel there wouldn't quite work for him (Missouri-Synod Lutherans don't worship in a unionistic manner). They were suspicious as to why he needed to go off base for Divine Service, etc. My father-in-law attended the Naval Academy (class of '58) and told us stories of how midshipmen would try to get out of weekend worship by claiming religions without a local presence -- only to find out that the academy would go to extremes to get them to a mosque or Theosophist center or what not many miles away.
Frequently stories about violations of the separation of church and state at military academies focus on the complainant's claim, as they should. Sometimes this is at the expense of the possible complications at play. So I wanted to highlight this Associated Press story that I thought handled everything with a very nice balance. It begins:
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- A cadet quitting West Point less than six months before graduation says he could no longer be part of a culture that promotes prayers and religious activities and disrespects nonreligious cadets.
Blake Page announced his decision to quit the U.S. Military Academy this week in a much-discussed online post that echoed the sentiments of soldiers and airmen at other military installations. The 24-year-old told The Associated Press that a determination this semester that he could not become an officer because of clinical depression played a role in his public protest against what he calls the unconstitutional prevalence of religion in the military.
Quitting six months before graduation is almost unheard of at military academies. A big part of that is because, after a window that closes before your second year is completed, you usually pay a penalty. The information about Page not being able to be an officer is crucial, and it's good to put it up at the top. But I like how the reporter simply mentioned it, described the role it played according to the student, and didn't try to say that this aspect of the story invalidates the claim.
The article gives us specifics about Page's complaints -- jokes about nonreligious cadets being called heathens at basic training, an officer telling him he needed to fill the hole in his heart. He criticizes the leadership of West Point, calling them "criminals" for allowing these things to happen.
We also hear from folks at West Point who dispute the allegations, including citing the academy's Secular Student Alliance, where Page was president. The article goes ahead and speaks with members of that club to see what they have to say:
Maj. Nicholas Utzig, the faculty adviser to the secular club, said he doesn't doubt some of the moments Page described, but he doesn't believe there is systematic discrimination against nonreligious cadets.
"I think it represents his own personal experience and perhaps it might not be as universal as he suggests," said Utzig, who teaches English literature.
One of Page's secularist classmates went further, calling his characterization of West Point unfair.
"I think it's true that the majority of West Point cadets are of a very conservative, Christian orientation," said senior cadet Andrew Houchin. "I don't think that's unique to West Point. But more broadly, I've never had that even be a problem with those of us who are secular."
The article goes on to discuss the problems the Air Force Academy has had with church and state issues, pointing out that a retired four-star general was asked to conduct an independent review of the religious climate there. The article also discusses the rise in acceptance of atheists, agnostics and humanists in the military.
It's then that we learn that Page is involved with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, led by Mikey Weinstein. Weinstein is then quoted about "fanatical religiosity" in the military, comparing Page's courage to that of Rosa Parks. It's great to quote Weinstein, but I liked that his quotes came toward the end of the story. Frequently the stories we see about this issue are dominated by Weinstein, who is a significant actor in the movement.
The story wraps up with final details about Page's honorary discharge, including that he will pay no penalty in terms of military commitment or reimbursement for his education costs. We also learn that Page says his depression worsened after his father's suicide last year. The story ends with Page's quote that he hopes to spend the rest of his life as an activist on the role of religion in the military.
Very well done. It handles a number of delicate issues with care for all involved and you can come away from the complicated story with an understanding of a multitude of different perspectives. Perhaps, you could argue, there should be more perspective from the folks who are accused of unconstitutional behavior. And that's a fair point. But given the space constraints, I rather liked how much was fleshed out by focusing in on the secularist community.