Religious Intolerance Alleged at Military Academy

ByABC News

Feb. 19, 2005 — -- The U.S. Air Force Academy, one of the nation's elite military training grounds, is still trying to repair the damage from a 2003 sexual assault scandal. Charges of sexual assault from scores of current and former cadets were often met with indifference -- and even retribution.

Now the academy is dealing with a new controversy over charges of religious intolerance. Of the roughly 4,000 cadets at the Air Force Academy, about 93 percent are Christian. Minority students say they've been subjected to verbal abuse and made to feel like second-class citizens.

Curtis Weinstein said he experienced this on the softball field from a cadet whose name he didn't know. "He knew I was Jewish and referred to myself and my religion using the f-word, calling me, like, an f-ing Jew, and blaming me for killing Jesus," Weinstein said.

Weinstein said he didn't know to whom he could file a complaint, so he went to his father, Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the academy.

"He just didn't know what to do," his father recalled in an interview with ABC News, taking a deep breath. "I was pretty thunderstruck. I'm not someone who's ever at a loss for words. He told me that the next time this happened -- that the next time a cadet or someone did that -- that he was going to fight."

The elder Weinstein has taken a lead role in addressing charges of religious intolerance at the academy. "What you have is a lusty and thriving religious intolerance that is objectively manifesting itself in prejudice and discrimination," he said, "and is obliterating the First Amendment of the Constitution."

ABC News has learned of charges that, during a class on the Holocaust, one cadet told a Jewish cadet the Holocaust happened because Jews killed Christ.

Freshman Hila Levy said that Jewish students often have to fight to get permission to leave campus for religious services, and that in the process they get a bad reputation that they're trying to avoid campus activities like parades or football games.

"I don't want people to see that in us -- that all these Jews are trying to get out of stuff even if they've never practiced [religion] before," Levy said, adding, "That's not the case."

It's not just Jews who have noted discrimination. One recent graduate filed a complaint all the way up to the Pentagon alleging the academy is "systematically biased against any cadet that does not overtly espouse Christianity."

The anonymous graduate, who says he is open about being an atheist, described what happened when he posted a poem about atheists in the military on the door of his dorm room. "Every day after class it was torn back down," he said. "But I kept putting it back up until my roommate finally threatened: 'If you keep putting that back up, I'm gonna ask for another roommate.' "

His formal complaint contains a litany of charges, including that cadets who didn't go to chapel after dinner were referred to as heathens; that mandatory events often include Christian prayers. Others complained that when "The Passion of the Christ" was released in theaters, it was advertised in dorms, classrooms and on every place setting in the dining hall.

The complaint singles out one of the top generals at the academy, Johnny Weida, who sent a letter to cadets saying, "You are accountable first to God." In fact, Air Force Academy cadets swear an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution first.

The recent graduate said that when he brought the charges to the academy's Military Equal Opportunity Officer, the officer told him he was a Christian and that it was his duty to "bring him back" to the flock.

"That basically hit my complaint on the head," the recent graduate said.

Though some say he was slow to act, the head of the Air Force Academy, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, is now taking action. "Quite frankly, some of the incidents that we looked at and heard about over the last four or five years were vicious," Rosa said "And that's totally unacceptable. It's not part of our profession of arms."

Rosa told the academy's oversight committee in Washington last week that he's instituting mandatory classes on religious respect for cadets, faculty and staff. "Just like sexual assault, we do not tolerate this kind of behavior," he said.

But David French, who runs the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan watchdog group that monitors free speech on college campuses, said there's no comparison between sexual assault and speech, no matter how offensive. He said the academy must not trample on the rights of Christian students in trying to fix this problem.

"A cadet can constitutionally approach another cadet and even say, 'I believe that my beliefs are the truth and the only way to go to heaven, and yours are sending you to hell,'" he said, "and that's constitutionally protected."

Curtis Weinstein, for one, said he's satisfied with the administration's response so far, but he will not forget what happened.

"The reason why it's been going on for as long as it has is because most of the upper leadership and some of the teachers and a lot of the cadets, of course, are Christian themselves," he said, "and they didn't see a problem with the culture how it was until, finally, we're getting together now and, yes, there is a problem and we want some things done differently."

Rosa recognized the need to tread the fine line between protecting minorities from abuse and censoring the Christians. He said recently: "That's the last thing we're trying to do. That's what we're defending. That's why we wear this uniform, so you can believe."

ABC News' Dan Harris filed this report for "Good Morning America."

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