By PAM ZUBECK - THE GAZETTE
The Air Force Academy has received 55 complaints of religious bias or persecution in the past year, and cadets, parents and graduates allege the problems stem from leadership failure.
"The fish stinks from the head, and the head of this fish is (Superintendent) John Rosa and (Commandant) Johnny Weida," said an academy graduate whose son has been called "a (expletive) Jew" and "Christ killer" by other cadets, who were not punished.
Superintendent Lt. Gen. John Rosa Jr. defended the academy Wednesday, saying the school launched a sensitivity training program Nov. 2 for staff and cadets.
"The key here is to understand one another's beliefs and appreciate diversity," Rosa said in an interview. "Regardless of what you believe, you're all part of the team. We realize we have issues. We're working them hard."
But Rosa acknowledged he took little or no action in response to the 55 complaints.
He imposed new training after an August cadet survey showed more than half of cadets reported hearing religious slurs, comments and jokes, and 32 percent of non-Christian cadets feel Christian cadets are given preferential treatment, while less than 10 percent of Christian cadets feel that way.
Now he says he should have acted sooner.
The fervor over religious discrimination is the latest upheaval to hit an institution sul- lied in recent years by scandals involving sexual assault, cheating and drug abuse.
Rosa said all those issues stem from culture problems he and others are tackling.
Tuesday, he told the academy's Board of Visitors at a meeting in Washington, D.C., that problems first arose last spring when cadets sent out e-mail messages promoting "The Passion of the Christ," a movie about Jesus' crucifixion. Cadets have since been told not to use academy e-mail for such messages.
Rosa also excused some cadet behavior by saying it was "not mean-spirited" but rather a product of upbringing.
The parent, who wanted to remain anonymous fearing retribution against his son, took issue, saying he is "outraged" Rosa would say name-calling is not mean-spirited.
He also asked how many cadets Rosa has met with who filed complaints.
None, Rosa told The Gazette. "I get complaints every day about something," he said. "I could chase myself down a rathole. Once we started connecting the dots and had some intolerance issues, we put together a campaign."
Rosa said he heard of a cadet being called a "Christ killer," but the cadet did not provide information upon which officials could act.
Cadets and graduates, who asked to remain anonymous fearing reprisal, cited these indicators that academy leaders sanction Christianity and lack understanding of religious freedom:
- Nonbelievers were forced to march in the "heathen flight" during basic training.
Johnny Whitaker, academy spokesman, said he hadn't verified the claim.
- Commandant Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, who has said he is a "born again" Christian, issued an e-mail message to personnel shortly after arriving in April 2003, urging all to "ask the Lord to give us the wisdom to discover the right. . . . The Lord is in control. He has a plan for . . . every one of us."
Whitaker saw nothing wrong with the advisory, saying it was sent in observance of the National Day of Prayer, "something that is sanctioned by the highest levels of our government."
- A month later, Weida issued a memo saying, "Remember, you are accountable first to your God. . . ." The Air Force oath requires allegiance to the U.S. Constitution first.
The academy had no response to Weida's comment.
- For at least 10 years, an advertisement proclaiming, "We believe that Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the World," ran in the base newspaper signed by hundreds of academy staff, leaders and spouses. Money to fund the ad was solicited using the academy's e-mail system.
Esteban Aguilar, an attorney in Albuquerque who represents a cadet's parent, said, "It is giving the impression of government sponsorship of religion, which is absolutely prohibited under our constitution." Rosa said the ad will not run this year.
- Some academy staffers cited New Testament scripture on official academy e-mail messages. Whitaker said staff has been "counseled" about the scripture.
- Inspections and training are held on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, but aren't from 8 a.m. to noon Sundays, when Christian services take place.
Whitaker said, "There are times when people haven't been accommodated," and added the academy is working on allowing cadets to pick alternate training times.
- A recent workshop to discuss religious sensitivity was scheduled on Rosh Hashanah, a holy day. It was changed only after staffers noted the conflict to academy leaders.
Rosa said Air Force headquarters has promised help if needed.