William Fisher

NEW YORK, Aug 17 2005 (IPS) — A retired Army major general has thrown fuel on the burning issue of religious discrimination at the U.S. Air Force Academy by urging commanders there to back a Christian evangelical rally for military personnel sponsored by Rev. Billy Graham’s ministry – and signing his letters “Your Partner in the Gospel”.

The academy, which has been dogged by allegations of harassment against non-Christian cadets, charged that Bob Dees has sent promotional literature to commanders at the Academy, saying the event “will spiritually refresh you and equip you to share your faith in Jesus Christ with your brothers and sisters in arms”.

In his letter, Dees, wrote, “We wholeheartedly recommend that you give (the event) the widest possible distribution within your command…This seminar is designed to provide assistance to chaplains and other military personnel who are followers of Jesus Christ to enable them more effectively serve their religious faith groups while serving their country.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), an advocacy group that has played a leading role in exposing religious bias at the academy, warned military officials not to promote a Christian evangelistic rally for military personnel sponsored by Billy Graham’s ministry, now run by Rev. Graham’s son, Franklin Graham.

AU said it took action after learning that Dees, who is now executive director of the Military Ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ International, had sent e-mails to installation commanders nationwide, not only at the Air Force Academy, informing them of a Sep. 9-11 “Serving God and Country” seminar in Asheville, North Carolina.

Promotional material for the event says other speakers will include U.S. Army General Robert Van Antwerp, who will speak about how “to lead and influence others with the character and life of Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU’s executive director, said, “The military must never favour one faith over others. The Graham Ministries’ event is intended to teach Christian evangelism, and that’s not something the military should be involved in.”

In a letter sent to Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and base commanders nationwide today, AU’s Lynn pointed out that the U.S. Constitution forbids government to promote religion.

Lynn’s letter said that promoting this Christian event to members of the military “could convey an unconstitutional message of governmental endorsement of religion, and to therefore urge you to ensure that military leaders do not encourage members of the military or their spouses to attend the event or otherwise promote it in any way”.

He said it would be “highly inappropriate for the military to endorse a rally sponsored by Franklin Graham, a harsh and controversial critic of Islam, at a time when the nation is fighting a war in a Muslim region of the world”.

The 4,000-cadet Air Force Academy, which trains future officers, is located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a town that is also home to a number of the nation’s most high-profile Christian evangelical organisations.

In response to recent accusations of religious discrimination at the academy, a military task force led by Lt. Gen. Roger Brady reported that the academy failed to accommodate the diverse religious needs of cadets and staff.

“Religious slurs and disparaging remarks have no place at the Air Force Academy,” Gen. Brady said.

Retired Chaplain Jack C. Williamson told legislators that the current problems at the academy were result of “years of practice that have gone unchallenged”, adding that the problem “goes far beyond tolerance”.

Dr. Christian Leslie, an ordained minister who is a professor at the Yale University Divinity School, said she was concerned about the power relationship between teachers and students.

“There is a problem when a chaplain defends saying ‘Jesus will be with you, Jesus will save you’ with the response ‘That’s the way we do it here – we promote Jesus’.” Patrick Mrotek, founder of the new Christian Alliance for Progress, told IPS in an email, “Separation of church and state has been a fundamental American value that both protects us from the government imposing a particular religion while also guaranteeing our freedom from that government in our place of worship.” “The Christian Right seeks to institutionalise and impose their beliefs on all Americans when our country’s political and religious traditions honour precisely the opposite values.” The Alliance is a religious organisation advocating moderation and the separation of church and state. The furor exploded this summer when a chaplain at the academy, Capt. Melinda Morton, charged that the religious problem at the academy was “pervasive”.

Capt. Morton was given an unwanted transfer, but resigned from the Air Force saying she did not believe her superiors genuinely wanted her to stay on to help resolve the problem. Before she resigned, she lodged a formal complaint, which is currently being investigated by the Air Force Inspector General.

Among the incidents highlighted in the task force report were fliers that advertised a screening of “The Passion of the Christ” at every seat in the dining hall, more than 250 people at the academy signing an annual Christmas message in the base newspaper that said, “Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the world” and an atheist student who was forbidden to organise a club for “Freethinkers.”

The commandant of cadets, Brig. Gen. Johnny A. Weida, came in for particular scrutiny by the Air Force panel. He sent an academy wide e-mail message to announce the National Day of Prayer, instructed cadets that they were “accountable to their God” and invented a call-and-response chant with the cadets that went, “Jesus … Rocks.”

Brian J. Foley, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, told IPS, “We are often told that the reason we spend more than any other country on our armed forces is because our military exists to ‘protect our freedoms’.”

“If the allegations about the Air Force Academy are true, then the Air Force must immediately move to protect its own future officers’ constitutional right to freedom of religion,” he said.

“These brave and talented young men and women, who have committed to risk their lives to defend their country, deserve the ability to practice their religion, or no religion at all, free from government pressure and coercion, and free from the government’s supporting one religion over other religions.” ***** +Americans United for Separation of Church and State (http://www.au.org) +POLITICS-US: “Heathens” Not Welcome at Air Force Academy (http://www.ipsnews.net/africa/interna.asp?idnews=29084)



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