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In need of salvation? Call 333-AMEN


"I question whether we have a scandal going here." So declared Colorado Springs Congressman Joel Hefley on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives during a heated debate about -- what else? -- the Air Force Academy and the ongoing saga over whether aggressive Christian proselytizing has created a climate of religious intolerance there.

Hefley makes an intelligent remark, as usual. Just because the mass media descends in tiresome vulture fashion; just because the Washington D.C.-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State compiles a damning report detailing intimidation of cadets by zealous evangelical instructors, chaplains and other cadets; and just because Focus on the Family gloms on in self-serving righteousness with an absurd statement alluding to "this ridiculous bias of a few against the religion of the majority -- Christianity," -- well, sorry, this does not a scandal make.

During the June 20 debate, Hefley's colleagues ranted things such as: "Like a moth to a flame, Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians." Yet he remained rational.

"I think that we have an administrative situation that the Air Force Academy and the Air Force are perfectly capable of taking care of," he said, adding, "We need to let this process work."

Unfortunately, this is where Hefley goes wrong. The Air Force Academy had its chance to correct its bias against non-Christians seven years ago. And blew it.

Back in 1998, First Lt. Jason Costello contacted the chaplain of the Air Force Academy by calling the main number, 333-AMEN. Costello wanted to get married in the world-famous chapel at the Academy, where he had graduated with honors three years before. Costello was preparing to ship off to Okinawa, Japan, to fly F-15 fighter jets and potentially die for his country. Everything was a go until he articulated what he had in mind: a traditional Hawaiian Huna ceremony, to honor his religion. His father, an ordained Hawaiian kahuna priest, would officiate.

The AFA chaplain at the time freaked out. No way, no how could Costello do that in the taxpayer-subsidized temple. As detailed in an extensive story in the Jan. 13, 1999 Independent, Costello and his father, Lono Ho'ala, were told that such a celebration would "desecrate" the Protestant chapel; they were offered a small room in the basement. Never mind that their 2,500-year old religion is not bizarre; that, in fact, Huna shares many basic philosophies with Christianity.

Costello ended up getting married at Colorado Springs' Peterson Air Force Base, where the chaplain there welcomed them with open Christian arms. Over the next year Ho'ala hammered at the Air Force Academy to make things right. The chaplain was transferred. The new one said he was sorry and promised immediate changes.

Seven years later, Major Costello is a top-notch Air Force fighter pilot. He's done two tours of duty in Iraq, is the East Coast demonstration pilot for F-15s and does air shows with the Thunderbirds all over the world. He never did get the apology his father hoped for.

"This is just a wonderful officer who's got a heart, and treats people with the greatest amount of respect," Ho'ala said in a recent phone interview. "There are a whole lot of non-Christians who have defended our country and, bottom line, just because a person is a Buddhist or a Native American or a Native Hawaiian or comes from a culture that doesn't embrace Christianity, it doesn't make them less valuable to our country or any less valuable to sacrificing their service to our country."

It is wrong, Ho'ala noted, for religious leaders to propagate the idea that one religion's God is better than every other God.

Meanwhile, recent complaints at the Academy allege that a chaplain ordered cadets to instruct their non-Christian colleagues that they will "burn in the fires of Hell" if they don't attend Christian worship services. Others have complained that instructors are proselytizing in class and that Christian cadets are given preferential treatment.

Ho'ala was not surprised at all over the latest claims of religious intolerance.

"Apologies only work when they share a vision," he said. "It should be, 'We see this didn't work, this is why it didn't work, and this is our policy and here are the steps we will take to correct our mistakes.' Otherwise, it's just political expression, designed to take the heat off."


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