Three cadets sit at attention, if there is such a thing, in the Jewish synagogue on the lower level of the Air Force Academy's Cadet Chapel.
They're here to answer a reporter's questions about the academy's religious climate — a topic that exploded in 2004 after allegations that cadets were being proselytized by evangelical Christians and that Christianity had become ingrained as the academy's most acceptable faith. For example, then-football coach Fisher DeBerry had hung a banner in the locker room stating, "I am a Christian first and last ... I am a member of Team Jesus Christ." He was ordered to remove it in November 2004.
But that's ancient history to these cadets, members of the Cadet Interfaith Council, which was formed after a 2005 Air Force investigation found "a lack of awareness over where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs."
Proselytizing, in other words.
Philicia Fahrenbruch, a slender third-year cadet who is Jewish, tells me that not much of that goes on these days, although at times cadets must be reminded. "We had a complaint a few months ago," she says, after a cadet sent an e-mail squadron-wide with a religious message.
The cadet was counseled that such notes must be confined to specific recipients, she says, adding, "It's an education thing." She insists any incidents can be fixed with a phone call or e-mail.
Third-year cadet Daniel Dwyer, a Buddhist, says he has not experienced any discrimination due to his faith, and Amanda Welch, a sophomore who is Protestant, backs up what the others say. All agree the academy is sensitive about religion issues. They also agree with Fahrenbruch that, "Right now, I think it might be getting blown out of proportion."
Controversy erupted in August after the latest gauge of the religious climate, and other issues, was withheld from public release by Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould. He refused to share details of the 2009-10 cadet climate survey, saying it was "pre-decisional" and, therefore, not subject to disclosure. But he said the responses reflected a positive academic and working environment, and suggested religious discrimination was declining.
The survey, obtained by the Independent in August, shows that 41 percent of non-Christian cadets responding to the survey said they were subjected to unwanted religious proselytizing. For Christian cadets, it was 14 percent. Also, 42 percent of non-Christian cadets said they were drawn into unwanted religious discussions, compared to 21 percent of Christians.
In 2004, when the academy asked slightly different questions, just over half of non-Christians said they had not felt pressure to be involved in religion at the academy. One assumes, then, that just under half did feel pressure.
Also that year, more than 60 percent of non-Christian cadets said they had heard religious slurs and religiously demeaning jokes from cadets. That question wasn't asked in the recent survey. But it did ask how often cadets had heard disparaging remarks about religious background, and only 34 percent had "never" heard such remarks. (A footnote: Disparaging remarks were more prevalent about gender, race and sexuality.)
The 2004 survey reported that one in three non-Christian cadets felt Christian cadets received preferential treatment. The latest survey didn't ask that question, but roughly one in seven non-Christians said they felt less socially accepted because of their beliefs.
All this gives Gould hope.
"I was really encouraged by the trend that fewer cadets felt they were proselytized," Gould says in an interview. "The concept of respect is sinking in to this Cadet Wing."
Still, Gould acknowledges the latest survey's results might not be reflective of the entire Cadet Wing. In 2004, 83 percent of cadets participated during time dedicated to the survey. The recent survey was given during December and January, and only 40 percent — a total of 1,840 out of 4,595 cadets — responded. By far, the largest portion of respondents — 39 percent — were freshmen. Seniors comprised only 17.5 percent.
That probably skews results, Gould admits, in such areas as whether cadets prefer squadron acceptance over reporting disrespect, because freshmen still are adjusting.
How much has the academy been able to influence freshman impressions on respect and integrity? Gould asks rhetorically. "It wasn't the best survey. We'll learn what we can from it."
Gould is thinking of giving the next survey in March 2012, and designating a time for it, rather than allowing a two-month window for cadets to respond online.
The preponderance of freshmen who responded might have helped boost some of the final numbers on religious proselytizing, since they're maybe seen as open to new ideas. The minutes of the Cadet Interfaith Council's March meeting hint freshmen may be targeted: "Group leaders trying to convert each other at the SPIRE picnic (it scares the Freshmen). Result: ask the SPIRE leaders to stop." SPIRE stands for Special Programs in Religious Education.
But Gould says the academy hasn't been overwhelmed by complaints about religious activities.
In the past two years, the Inspector General's Office has received six complaints against creation of an Earth-based worship area, and one complaint from a cadet's parent in 2008 saying the cadet was distracted from studies by involvement in an off-base church. Academy chaplains have received nine complaints and 10 letters of appreciation about Cadets for Christ, a group that has met on campus and is run by civilians Don and Anna Warrick, all within the past six weeks.
Often, such complaints are anonymous, and as Gould says, "It's hard to fix an anonymous response in a survey."
When Gould refused to release this year's survey, he provoked the AFA's biggest religion critic, Mikey Weinstein.
Weinstein, a 1977 grad who says he was beaten up as a cadet for being Jewish, is a screamer. But he gets results. His nonprofit, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, set up amid the 2004-5 religion controversy, earlier this year exposed that a military contractor places Bible verse codes on rifle scopes used by the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq. The contractor has agreed to remove them.
Weinstein, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., claims MRFF has thousands of members and connections throughout the military, from the Pentagon to the academy's Cadet Wing.
Although Weinstein praised Gould after the new superintendent arrived in mid-2009, notably for sanctioning the Earth-centered worship area, Weinstein now calls him the "lord of lies" and recently declared "war" against Gould and the academy. He claims that Gould's decision to keep the survey under wraps triggered dozens of calls and e-mails from cadets, graduates, professors and staff, who contend fundamentalist Christianity still reigns at the school.
Weinstein says all of his contacts are "scared to death" to go through military protocols with their complaints.
In a Sept. 28 letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates demanding an investigation, Weinstein insists that more than 100 cadets have told him they pretend to be fundamentalist Christians in order to maintain good standing among their squadrons and superiors. Weinstein claims the group consists mostly of Christians who "aren't Christian enough or the right kind of Christians."
Weinstein also cites the academy's dissemination of a christianfighterpilot.com article on its daily Falcon Clips news service. The website's blog has been critical of Weinstein's salary of $252,485 in 2008, nearly half of MRFF's total revenue that year.
Weinstein demands the academy ban Cadets for Christ from the campus, which at times has met at Arnold Hall. He also wants the academy's SPIRE program, which he calls "a gateway for fundamentalist Christians," eliminated. Lastly, he wants a new system created where people can feel safe in reporting undue religious influence.
"Everyone is terrified of the academy," Weinstein says. "I'm carrying their water, and I'm tired of it. I've been doing it since two thousand fucking four."
Hooks in the water
I spent an afternoon at the academy recently and came away with a greater understanding of just how difficult it can be to provide an atmosphere of religious freedom while preventing unwanted faith sharing.
Gould emphasizes he must walk a fine line in upholding the First Amendment, which both protects religious freedom and prevents establishment of a government religion.
"My mission is clear. It's to provide the guidance and create an environment where we are free to practice our faith or not at all, so we can get on with the real mission of creating leaders of character for our nation," he says. He says he's hammered home the message that it's out of bounds for someone to use rank to exert religious influence.
But at the Chapel, I learn that the Chaplain Corps is still groping for ways to underscore the message, to field complaints and to discover if things are happening that shouldn't be.
Maj. Joshua Narrowe, a rabbi who's senior chaplain in charge of plans and programs, has been at the academy for 14 months and hasn't experienced any anti-Jewish sentiment. "I've asked my cadets time and time again if there are issues, and the answer has always been 'no,'" he says.
Other chaplains say they constantly try to take the pulse of cadets. Narrowe says the academy works hard to accommodate various faiths, pointing out the addition of Buddhist, Muslim and Earth-centered worship areas in recent years and attempts to avoid required training on religious holidays.
But the whole thing can be confusing to cadets, the chaplains admit. There's nothing wrong or illegal with sharing one's faith, Narrowe says. The foul comes when it doesn't stop, or when a superior wields faith as a carrot or weapon. "Do I have a right to share my faith? Yes," Narrowe says. "Do I have the right to harass you? No."
Maj. Peter Fischer, senior Protestant chaplain, goes further: "If you're going to share your faith, you need to do so within your peer group," to avoid the appearance of undue influence by a superior. "Government has no right to tell you what you can or can't believe."
That's one of the messages during an hour of training on religious freedom and restrictions provided to first-year cadets and the basic training cadre of upperclassmen. SPIRE leaders get 90 minutes of training.
But the Chaplain Corps admits more is needed, and the chaplains are looking for help from the AFA's Religious Accommodation Conference in mid-November. The academy also is working with the Anti-Defamation League on accommodation and discrimination problems.
Says Narrowe: "It's a work in progress right now."