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Diverse group of experts discusses religious respect, training
Rabbi Barry Baron and Jason Torpy talk during a break at the 2010 Religious Respect Conference at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Nov. 16, 2010. Conference topics included how to define religious respect and the roles of both commanders and chaplains in accommodating requests for religious expression. Rabbi Baron is deputy direcctor of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council. Mr. Torpy is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)
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Academy holds religious respect conference

Posted 11/17/2010   Updated 11/17/2010 Email story   Print story


by Staff Sgt. Don Branum
U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs

11/17/2010 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Leaders from national Christian, Jewish, Freethinker, Earth-Centered and interfaith religious organizations met at the Air Force Academy Monday and Tuesday to discuss how the Academy can best train cadets to respect other faiths, and how to continue to foster an environment that encourages accommodation of religious practices.

Joining them were senior Air Force leaders and chaplains, including Lt. Gen. Richard Newton III, the Air Force director of manpower and personnel, Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, Chaplain (Col.) Jimmy Browning, deputy commandant of the Air Force Chaplain Corps College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., and four members of the Academy's Cadet Interfaith Council.

Chaplain (Maj.) David Rademacher walked conference attendees through the training currently provided to cadets during Basic Cadet Training. The briefing, offered in the first week of BCT, clarifies cadets' rights to religious expression. One true-or-false question offered in the training asks cadets whether it is okay to share their religious faith (true), while another asks whether it is permissible for Academy staff or upperclassmen to compel lower-ranking cadets to attend religious activities (false).

"'Upper class' and 'compel' belong in the same sentence no matter what," Chaplain Rademacher said. "But this lets the basics see that they do have more rights than just the ones they're given. Cadre cannot compel you to do something when it comes to the first amendment."

Beth Yohe, the associate director of training and curriculum for the Anti-Defamation League, offered an inside look at a second hour of religious respect training for fourth-class cadets. The discussion-based courses feature a variety of scenarios that groups can discuss among themselves. In one scenario, a cadet is asked whether he is Muslim: when he says yes, another cadet says, "What about Fort Hood? How do we know he's not a terrorist?"

"This is a serious comment about a fellow cadet," Ms. Yohe said. "It needs to be taken seriously in a number of ways to reinforce that bigotry has no place at the Air Force Academy."

Training for upperclass cadets will broaden the religious respect perspective, providing the juniors and seniors with a commander's toolkit for religious guidelines that includes advice and counsel from chaplains. Commanders make final decisions on religious accommodation with advice and input from chaplains, said Chaplain (Capt.) Steven Cuneio. Moreover, commanders must create an environment where subordinates feel free to request accommodations for their faith practices.

The topic of prayer at official functions sparked an intense, if tangential, discussion among several of the conference attendees. Retired Chaplain (Col.) Jack Williamson, executive director of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, pointed out the tension between chaplains who feel compelled to pray in Jesus' name versus the military requirement that prayers at mandatory events be non-denominational and non-sectarian.

"A chaplain is never asked to violate his or her ordination responsibilities," Chaplain Cuneio said. "They have the opportunity to decline without prejudice."

However, Reverend Dr. Billy Baugham, executive director of the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers, said he believes the restrictions on prayers infringe on chaplains' right to religious expression.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Dan Brantingham said any chaplain who feels compelled to pray in Jesus' name would not be placed in a position to compromise that belief. Chaplain (Col.) Robert Bruno, the Academy's senior staff chaplain, also tried to ease Reverend Baugham's concerns.

"In all the years that I have been writing (officer performance reports) for chaplains, either as the rater or the senior rater ... this is never anything that ever comes up," Chaplain Bruno said. Raters look at chaplains' ability to offer pastoral care and focus on supervision, leadership and team building.

Another, somewhat less intense, discussion surrounded the definitions of words such as "respect," "proselytizing" and "evangelizing." While the training slides define religion, unlawful discrimination and disparaging terms, some of the concepts at the core of what the Academy is trying to instill are not well-defined or not defined at all. Jason Torpy, president of the Military Alliance of Atheists and Freethinkers, said the Academy course should clarify whether respect should be paid to the person or to the belief system.

Because religious beliefs are sometimes diametrically opposed, it's impossible to expect everyone to respect everyone else's beliefs, Chaplain Williamson said. Respect must therefore focus on the person.

The Air Force definition of religion does allow for non-traditional belief systems -- even atheism, Chaplain (Maj.) Peter Fischer, the Academy's senior protestant chaplain, said. This is important given the increasing diversity of religious views within the Academy and the broader military.

"When I came into the chaplain corps as a chaplain assistant in 1983, our shield had a cross, the (Decalogue) and the Star of David on it because Judeo-Christian beliefs were what we accommodated. That's just not true today," he added.

Dr. David Oringderff, one of the founders of the Earth-Centered Sacred Well Congregation, said his presence at the table was testament to the Academy's strides in recognizing the importance of religious diversity within the military.

The Academy's efforts to embrace religious respect could affect international relations, said retired Chaplain (Col.) Darrell Morton, assistant to the presiding bishop for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Federal Chaplaincy Ministries.

"Religion has far too long been treated as ancillary to a human being, perhaps because of our culture of church-state separation, but religion is part of the core of a human being," Chaplain Morton said. "What you're trying to accomplish here is an important part of that."

Many of the participants said they were honored to have been invited and encouraged the Academy to continually improve the religious respect training program in the months and years ahead.

"There is one verse in the Bible that I've never forgotten and never will forget: 'The truth shall set you free,'" Reverend Baugham said. "If we keep asking questions from the heart, seeking the truth ... that's about all we can do."

General Gould said the Academy would continue to improve the process. He told the Cadet Interfaith Council attendees that he wanted them to be a part of it.

"We have the leadership team here, and we understand it's a command issue," he said. "There isn't a finish line that we bust through and declare victory; it's ongoing. We'll keep moving forward every day."

Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series covering religious expression and diversity at the Air Force Academy.

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