Yesterday, we told you about a new worship space at the Air Force Academy designed for use by cadets and staffers who practice Earth-centered beliefs, including Pagans, Wiccans and Druids.
Shortly thereafter, a photo began to circulate showing that last month, persons unknown placed a cross against the rock circle at the center of the space -- an apparent act of pro-Christian bullying of the sort pinpointed in a 2005 military study documenting religious intolerance at the Academy.
The response to this breaking news? The Academy is in full damage control mode, with Lieutenant General Mike Gould, AFA's superintendent, issuing a statement decrying the action (see it below) and Brigadier General Samuel Cox addressing cadets during lunch at noon today.
AFA spokesman John Van Winkle echoes the sentiments expressed in Gould's statement. "We view this the same as someone going into any other sacred space and spray-painting over it, or putting graffiti or hate messages there," he says. "It's no different not matter what the religion is. Somebody violated their sacred space, and that's not acceptable in the Air Force."
The cross was left at the site in January, Van Winkle notes. "We're unsure how long it was there. It was discovered by a member of the faith group who got the photo of it, and he reported it to our chaplain's office, who took the issue to the superintendent [Gould]. From there, we addressed it with the cadets, staff and faculty.
"It was a pretty open, direct and forceful message. We said, 'Here's what the expectations are on religious respect. Here's what happened. Here's why this is not acceptable. And this is why we have the values of religious respect and tolerance.'"
Van Winkle adds that Brigadier General Cox's decision to readdress the matter amid a new flurry of media activity is intended "to drive home the issue, and we'll continue to do it as often as is necessary.
"You've got to remember, we always have a new group of cadets coming in every summer, and they're a cross-section of society -- and we're not immune to the issues of society just because we're on a military base. So we should and must deal with the issues that come in and let people know about the expectations we've got, not just when it comes to religious respect, but respect as a whole. And with the cadets, there are the expectations in the honor code as they apply to sexual-assault prevention and response and any other issues in society that may emerge."
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This mention of sexual assault is hardly coincidental. Back in 2003, the Academy was beset with scandal as a result of the mistreatment of female cadets documented in "The War Within," a Westword feature article by Julie Jargon that triggered some of the worst publicity the Air Force has received in recent memory.
In an attempt not to revisit this territory, the Academy is doing its best to look responsive. "We're working to find out who did what and also working on prevention in the future in terms of making sure people understand what is and what is not acceptable," Van Winkle maintains. When asked if disciplinary action against anyone found to have played a part in the incident is likely, he says, "Absolutely."
Here's Lt. General Mike Gould's highly capitalized statement:
IN THE LAST SEVERAL DAYS, YOU'VE READ OR HEARD OR SEEN THAT THE AIR FORCE ACADEMY HAS ESTABLISHED AN AREA FOR EARTH CENTERED WORSHIP. SOME OF WHAT YOU READ OR HEAR IS SENSATIONALIZED. I WANT TO SEPARATE FACT FROM FICTION.
WE MADE THE DECISION TO ADD A WORSHIP AREA FOR FOLLOWERS OF EARTH-CENTERED RELIGIONS BASED ON RELIGIOUS RIGHTS OUTLINED IN THE U.S. CONSTITUTION. THE STONE CIRCLE IS LOCATED ATOP A HILL OVERLOOKING THE VISITOR CENTER AND IS THE LATEST ADDITION TO A COLLECTION OF WORSHIP AREAS THAT ALREADY INCLUDE PROTESTANT, CATHOLIC, JEWISH, MUSLIM AND BUDDHIST SACRED SPACES.
THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE REMAINS NEUTRAL REGARDING RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND WILL NOT OFFICIALLY ENDORSE NOR DISAPPROVE ANY FAITH BELIEF OR ABSENCE OF BELIEF. THE EARTH-CENTERED SPIRITUALITY GROUP THAT MEETS AT THE AIR FORCE ACADEMY FALLS WITHIN THE DEFINTION OF RELIGION AS DEFINED IN THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE INSTRUCTION 36-2706 WHICH STATES:
"A PERSONAL SET OR INSTITUTIONAL SYSTEM OF ATTITUDES, MORAL OR ETHICAL BELIEFS AND PRACTICES HELD WITH THE STRENGTH OF TRADITIONAL RELIGIOUS VIEWS, CHARACTERIZED BY ARDOR AND FAITH AND GENERALLY EVIDENCED THROUGH SPECIFIC RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCES."
EARTH CENTERED WORSHIP FALLS IN THIS DEFINITION. ADDING THE EARTH-CENTERED WORSHIP CIRCLE WAS DONE SO IN RESPONSE TO THE REQUEST OF BOTH CADETS AND ACTIVE DUTY PERSONNEL WHO ASKED THAT THEIR RELIGION BE ACCOMODATED BY THE AIR FORCE ACADEMY CHAPLAINCY. THEREFORE, IT IS OUR OBLIGATION, MY OBLIGATION, TO ACCOMMODATE THE GROUP'S RELIGIOUS REQUIREMENTS IN A MANNER THAT IS FAIR AND CONSISTENT WITH OTHER RELIGIOUS GROUPS WHO ARE ACCOMODATED AT THE ACADEMY.
YOU MAY HAVE ALSO HEARD THAT A CROSS WAS FOUND AT THE SITE. THE CROSS WAS MADE OF RAILROAD TIES BEING LEFT AT THE EARTH WORSHIP SITE. THIS TOPIC HAS ALSO BEEN EXTENSIVELY COVERED AND NOT ALWAYS ACCURATELY. THOUGH WE DON'T KNOW THE CIRCUMSTANCES BEHIND THIS INCIDENT, WHETHER OR NOT IT WAS A MALICIOUS ACT OR NOT, OR EVEN IF ACADEMY PERSONNEL WERE INVOLVED, WE DIRECTED AN INQUIRY THAT IS ONGOING. IF WE FIND THAT THIS IS AN INTENTIONAL INCIDENT AND IDENTIFY THOSE RESPONSIBLE, WE'LL TAKE THE APPROPRIATE ACTION. BUT WE TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY AND ON THE 27TH OF JANUARY I PERSONALLY TALKED TO MY SENIOR STAFF TO REITERATE THE ACADEMY'S STANCE ON RESPECT AND DIGNITY. SINCE THEN, OUR DEAN OF FACULTY HAS ADDRESSED THIS WITH HER FACULTY AND STAFF, OUR COMMANDANT OF CADETS HAS TALKED TO THE ENTIRE CADET WING, OUR ATHLETIC DIRECTOR HAS TALKED WITH OUR COACHES AND PHYSICAL FITNESS AND ADMINISTRATIVE STAFFS, OUR PREP SCHOOL COMMANDER HAS TALKED WITH HIS STAFF AND THE 220 CADET CANDIDATES AND THE COMMANDER OF OUR AIR BASE WING HAS DONE THE SAME WITH HIS STAFF.
OUR MESSAGE IS SIMPLE: WE ARE TAKING THIS INCIDENT VERY SERIOUSLY AND CONDUCTING AN IQUIRY. WE ABSOLUTELY DO NOT STAND FOR ANY TYPE OF DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOR OR DISRESPECT FOR HUMAN DIGNITY.
THE AIR FORCE ACADEMY IS NOT THE FIRST AIR FORCE INSTITUTION TO ACCOMMODATE EARTH CENTERED RELIGIONS AND WE WON'T BE THE LAST. HOWEVER, AT THE AIR FORCE ACADMEY THE ISSUE OF RELIGION IS FAR GREATER THAN ACCOMODATION, IT'S ABOUT RELIGIOUS RESPECT.
THE MISSION OF THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE ACADEMY IS TO EDUCATE, TRAIN AND INSPIRE MEN AND WOMEN TO BECOME OFFICERS OF CHARACTER TO LEAD THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE IN SERVICE TO OUR NATION. WE ARE DEDICATED TO CREATING A LEARNING AND TRAINING ENVIRONMENT WHERE CADETS CAN REALIZE THEIR HIGHEST POTENTIAL REGARDLESS OF THEIR RELIGIOUS OR OTHER BELIEFS.
CADETS LEARN THAT TO SUCCEED AS AN AIR FORCE OFFICER WE MUST BE ABLE TO SUPPORT AND RESPECT THE PEOPLE WHO WE LEAD, SERVE WITH AND FIGHT ALONG SIDE EVEN IF THEY DO NOT SHARE OUR PERSONAL BELIEFS.
CADETS LEARN THAT EVERY SERVICEMEMBER IS CHARGED WITH DEFENDING FREEDOM FOR ALL AMERICANS AND THAT INCLUDES THE FREEDOM TO PRACTICE A RELIGION OF THEIR CHOICE OR TO NOT PRACTICE ANY RELIGION AT ALL. CADETS LEARN THAT IT IS A GREAT HONOR AND PRIVILEGE TO WEAR THE UNIFORM OF OUR ARMED SERVICES AND SERVE TO PROTECT FREEDOM, TO INCLUDE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM.
ON GRADUATION DAY, THE SAME DAY AS THEY ARE AWARED A COMMISSION AS SECOND LIEUTENANTS IN THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE, THEY WILL TAKE AN OATH TO SUPPORT AND DEFEND THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES.
AT THE AIR FORCE ACADEMY WE FOCUS AND WILL CONTINUE TO FOCUS ON RESPECT FOR HUMAN DIGNITY TO ENSURE ALL PERSONNEL RESPECT THE SPIRT AND INTENT OF THE FIRST AMENDMENT TO THE U.S. CONSTITUION. THIS OUR COMMON DUTY AS MEMBERS OF THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE.