AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The Air Force Academy says religious tolerance has improved dramatically since allegations five years ago that evangelical Christians harassed cadets who didn't share their faith. Even the school's most vocal critic agrees.
"This is the first time we feel positive about things there," said Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which battled the academy in court over claims that evangelicals at the school were imposing their views on others.
The academy superintendent, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, says the improvements are the result of a topdown campaign to foster respect and a commitment to accommodate all cadets, even nonbelievers and an "Earth-centered" religious group that needed a place for a stone circle so it could worship outdoors.
"If we are going to have success in our primary mission of developing leaders of character, we have to do that based on respect in all things, whether we're talking gender, race or religion," Gould said.
Academy commanders say the school has started to seek out the religious needs of its cadets and accommodate them, instead of waiting for cadets to ask. For example, a Cadet Interfaith Council with about 20 members helps identify upcoming religious holidays so schedules can be adjusted around them, when possible.
"There's been a huge shift," said Maj. Joshua Narrowe, an academy chaplain. "Previously, if somebody wanted to have special (religious) needs taken care of ... that cadet had to petition. That was often denied.
"The default answer now is, 'Yes, go ahead,'" Narrowe said.
The Interfaith Council also meets with chaplains at least once a month to discuss the religious climate and other issues, said Lt. Col. William Ziegler, another chaplain.