Retired general to review religion at AF Academy

AP News
Posted: Mar 11, 2011 6:44 PM
Retired general to review religion at AF Academy

A retired Air Force general who once served as commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy will assess the religious climate at the school, where allegations and court battles over religious tolerance have periodically flared for seven years.

Patrick K. Gamble, who retired as a four-star general in 2001 and is now president of the University of Alaska, was asked to take an "independent, subjective look at the overall climate at USAFA relating to free exercise of religion," the Air Force said in a statement Friday.

The Air Force said the review is not an investigation or inspection, and that no detailed report is expected.

Gamble said Friday he was assembling a team of five or six other members with expertise in law, religion, academics and other areas to conduct the review. He said it was too early to release the other members' names.

Gamble said his goal is to see whether various programs and provisions put in place since 2004, when religious intolerance became an issue, are working.

Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and a vocal critic of the academy, criticized the scope of the review as it was outlined in the Air Force statement.

The problem at the school is not with any restriction on the free exercise of religion, but with unwanted proselytizing by fundamentalist Christians, a violation of the constitutional concept of the separation of church and state, he said.

Gamble said he had not ruled out looking at the separation issue. He said his review team is still getting organized and its scope hasn't been determined.

"We're going to take a blinders-off look, and nothing's off the table, but nothing's on the table, either," he said.

Gamble said he wasn't sure whether he would report his findings orally, in a written report or both. No date has been set for the team to visit the school, he said.

Academy spokesman Lt. Col. John Bryan said the school welcomes the opportunity to show the "solid progress we've made over the last few years in terms of religious respect, diversity and the overall climate here."

The tolerance issue surfaced when many cadets reported in a 2004 survey that they had heard slurs or jokes about other religions. Some said they felt ostracized because they weren't religious.

An Air Force task force concluded in 2005 there was no overt discrimination by evangelical Christians, but it said the academy failed to accommodate the religious needs of some cadets and staff. It also cited a perception of intolerance.

Since then, academy commanders say they have sought out the religious needs of cadets and taken steps to accommodate them, instead of waiting for cadets to ask. In 2009, the school set aside a spot on its 28-square-mile campus for an Earth-centered religion group.

Weinstein's group and a faculty member filed suit in federal court last month, seeking to block a prayer luncheon on grounds that it appeared to be sponsored by the academy, not by chaplains, and therefore violated the separation of church and state. The suit also claimed some faculty feared retribution if they didn't attend.

A judge dismissed the suit, saying the plaintiffs hadn't shown a real and imminent threat of retribution, and that lawyers for the academy had shown the chaplains, not academy commanders, were the sponsors.

Gamble's review was first reported in the Colorado Springs Independent newspaper. The Independent reported that the Air Force also plans to review questions raised by an academy faculty member about the qualifications of some of the faculty. An Air Force spokeswoman said she could not comment.