U.S. Air Force sued over alleged religious intolerance at academy
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) - A Jewish father of two Air Force Academy cadets sued the Air Force on Thursday, claiming senior officers and cadets illegally imposed Christianity on others at the school.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court by Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate and outspoken critic of the school's handling of religion.
Over the past decade or more, the lawsuit claims, academy leaders have fostered an environment of religious intolerance at the Colorado school, in violation of the First Amendment.
Weinstein has one son who graduated from the academy last year and another who is a junior there. Both were subjected to anti-Semitic slurs from evangelical Christian cadets, he said.
Weinstein, who lives in Albuquerque, claims that evangelical Christians at the school have coerced attendance at religious services and prayers at official events, among other things.
"It's a shocking disgrace that I had to file this thing," he told The Associated Press.
The Air Force declined immediate comment. Members of the Air Force Academy's Board of Visitors also declined to comment. The oversight panel, which includes members of Congress, met in Washington on Thursday.
Cadets, watchdog groups and a former chaplain at the academy have alleged that religious intolerance is widespread at the school. On Aug. 29, the Air Force issued guidelines discouraging public prayer at official functions and urging commanders to be sensitive about personal expressions of religious faith.
There have been complaints at the academy that a Jewish cadet was told the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus and that another Jew was called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet. A banner in the football team's locker room read: "I am a Christian first and last ... I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."
Also, there have been complaints that cadets were pressured to attend chapel, that academy staffers put New Testament verses in government e-mail, and that cadets used the e-mail system to encourage others to see the Mel Gibson movie "The Passion of the Christ."
The lawsuit, which names the Air Force and its acting secretary, Pete Geren, as defendants, asks the Air Force to prohibit its members - including chaplains - from evangelizing and proselytizing or in any related way attempting "to involuntarily convert, pressure, exhort or persuade a fellow member of the USAF to accept their own religious beliefs while on duty."
The lawsuit claims that despite the new guidelines, Air Force officials "have made it clear that they have no intent to actually remedy the unconstitutional practices."
The lawsuit cites a remark by Brig. General Cecil R. Richardson, the Air Force deputy chief of chaplains. "We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched," he said in a New York Times article published in July.
The Air Force and Geren have refused "to make a clear statement that this is not its policy," despite repeated requests from Weinstein, the lawsuit says.
In June, an Air Force task force said it found no overt religious discrimination but observed a lack of sensitivity among some and confusion over what is permissible in sharing one's faith.
After a July visit to the academy, a team from the Yale Divinity School issued a report last month saying it found lingering problems among the academy's chaplains, whose activities may conflict with the goals of school leaders and the Air Force overall.
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