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Intolerance cited at air academy

Pentagon probe finds no overt religious bias

WASHINGTON -- The Air Force Academy has been troubled by insensitivity toward non-Christian cadets and staff members, but officials have not committed acts of overt religious discrimination, military investigators said yesterday.

A report on an Air Force investigation into the religious climate at the school says academy leaders and the Air Force should clarify policies on religious expression so religious minorities do not feel discriminated against or pressured.

The report, released by the Pentagon, also cites a perception of intolerance among some cadets and staff. But it credited officials at the school with moving to confront the issues.

''The [Air Force] team found a religious climate that does not involve overt religious discrimination, but a failure to fully accommodate all members' needs and a lack of awareness where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs," the report said.

The team was appointed after complaints that evangelical Christians wield so much influence that anti-Semitism and religious harassment have become pervasive.

An attachment to the 100-page report dealt with one officer, Brigadier General John Weida, who was accused of pressuring students. He was cleared of wrongdoing on all but one allegation. The report did not give details, saying that it remained under review.

Weida has been criticized for sending an e-mail promoting National Prayer Day in May 2003 and for a memo telling cadets that they are accountable first to their God.

Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, an academy graduate and critic of its religious practices, said he was encouraged ''because at least there is a report," but was outraged that the task force ''gives a pass" to a chaplain who allegedly urged cadets to tell classmates they would burn in hell if they were not born-again Christians.

Earlier, on Tuesday, Captain MeLinda Morton, a different chaplain who spoke out against religious intolerance there, resigned her commission after 13 years serving the Air Force. Morton's attorney, Gene Fidell, told The Gazette in Colorado Springs that the resignation was not coerced.

Critics, including Morton, have said evangelical Protestants were harassing cadets of other faiths at the school in violation of constitutional principles of separation of church and state in the military.

Morton had said in May that she was fired and a transfer to Japan was hastened because she spoke out about the academy's religious climate. School officials said her move was routine.

Last week, General John Rosa, the academy's superintendent, offered Morton an assistant position on his staff to work on religious issues, a spokesman said.

The investigation was initiated after critics of the academy's handling of religion told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that students, faculty, staff, and members of the chaplains' office pressured cadets to attend chapel and receive religious instruction.

Lieutenant General Roger Brady, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel, said he found seven incidents that he referred to the military's chain of command for possible investigation.

The Air Force report cites some incidents but does not provide specifics: religious slurs and disparaging remarks between cadets, and statements from faculty and staff with strong religious beliefs that some cadets found offensive.

''There is a lack of awareness on the part of some faculty and staff, and perhaps some senior cadets, as to what constitutes appropriate expressions of faith," Brady said at a news conference.

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