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Air Force cadets allege religious harassment

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Less than two years after it was plunged into a rape scandal, the Air Force Academy is scrambling to address complaints that evangelical Christians wield so much influence at the school that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment have become pervasive.

There have been 55 complaints of religious discrimination at the academy in the past four years, including cases in which a Jewish cadet was told that the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus. Another was called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet.

The 4,300-student school recently started requiring staff members and cadets to take a 50-minute religious-tolerance class.

''There are things that have happened that have been inappropriate. And they have been addressed and resolved," said Colonel Michael Whittington, the academy's chief chaplain.

More than 90 percent of the cadets identify themselves as Christian. A cadet survey in 2003 found that half had heard religious slurs and jokes, and that many non-Christians believed Christians get special treatment.

''There were people walking up to someone and basically they would get in a conversation and it would end with, 'If you don't believe what I believe you are going to hell,' " Colonel Debra Gray, vice commandant, said.

Critics of the academy say the sometimes-public endorsement of Christianity by high-ranking staff members has contributed to a climate of fear and violates the constitutional separation of church and state at a taxpayer-supported school whose mission is to produce Air Force leaders.

They also say academy leaders are desperate to avoid the sort of uproar that came with the 2003 scandal in which dozens of women said their complaints of sexual assault were ignored.

''They are deliberately trivializing the problem so that we don't have another situation the magnitude of the sex assault scandal.

It is inextricably intertwined in every aspect of the academy," said Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, N.M., a 1977 graduate who has sent two sons to the school. He said the younger, Curtis, has been called a ''filthy Jew" many times.

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