News>2012 religious respect conference to focus on Academy's progress
Chaplain (Maj.) Peter Fischer and the Right Reverend James Magness talk outside the Dean of Faculty Conference Room at the Air Force Academy during a break at the Academy's Religious Respect Conference Nov. 16, 2010. Topics at the conference included balancing freedom of religious expression with the Constitution's prohibition against establishing or endorsing religion. The 2012 conference will discuss the Academy's progress since 2010 and the state of the religious respect training program. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)
Cadet Tirzah Prince gathers canned goods to make a box of food at the Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado Aug. 27, 2011, as part of a Cadet Interfaith Council community outreach effort. The Cadet Interfaith Council is a piece of the Academy's effort to foster a climate of religious respect. Prince is assigned to Cadet Squadron 29. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah Chambers)
Rev. Dr. David Oringderff speaks with Lt. Gen. Mike Gould during a dedication ceremony for the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle May 3, 2011. Oringderff, the executive director of the Sacred Well Congregation, represented the Earth-Centered Spirituality community during a religious respect conference at the Academy in November 2010 and has been invited to attend the 2012 conference. Gould is the Academy superintendent. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)
Chaplains, cadets on the Academy's Cadet Interfaith Council and officials with religious and First-Amendment advocacy groups from around the nation will meet here Tuesday and Wednesday for a religious respect conference to discuss how Academy officials continue to develop an atmosphere of religious acceptance and respect for human dignity.
The discussion will build on the groundwork laid by the previous religious respect conference, held in November 2010, which outlined the religious respect training program now in place for cadets and the Cadet Interfaith Council's role in fostering religious respect, said Chaplain (Maj.) Joshua Narrowe, the Cadet Wing deputy chaplain.
Since the 2010 conference, chaplains have provided training to more than 5,000 cadets, Narrowe said. They have also expanded the interactive, scenario-based training to faculty, air officers commanding and Academy military training NCOs.
"The bottom-line-up-front goal is teaching an ethic of respect regardless of who people are, whether they follow one faith or another faith or no faith at all," said Chaplain (Col.) Robert Bruno, the Air Force Academy chaplain. "What we are trying to teach is a fundamental ethic of respect. We recognize the inherent dignity of every human being, and the ethic of respect is built upon that."
The training also reinforces the importance of moving beyond simple tolerance, Bruno said.
"When -- not if -- you get to those areas where there will certainly be disagreement, the mantra is quite simple. We agree to disagree agreeably, civilly, respectfully, professionally," he said.
"I should be able to respect your faith group and your right to practice, just like you have a responsibility to respect my right to practice or not to practice," added Narrowe, a Jewish rabbi. "The word respect is very important."
In addition, the chaplains sought help from the Academy's Judge Advocate office and Law Department to help strengthen the legal foundations behind the training.
"We emphasize both elements of the First Amendment -- the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause," Bruno said. "The Establishment Clause is the domain of our legal team. When we start a religious respect training block, the legal folks go first, and they do an entire section on the Establishment Clause: what it means, what it prescribes, what it proscribes. They lay the legal foundation for that. Then we come in and we do the Free Exercise piece."
The training program is targeted toward various audiences, Bruno explained. Freshmen discuss scenarios based on their personal right to religious expression, whereas seniors discuss scenarios based on how to accommodate the religious needs of subordinates within their units. Faculty members, AOCs and AMTs will receive different training.
The chaplains have even included a religious respect training segment for new sponsors, Narrowe said. And by the end of the academic year, they hope to have training in place for the Commandant of Cadets staff and the Athletic Department. Headquarters staff, however, presents more of a challenge.
"That topic has come up. That one is a little bit trickier. It's hard to target (scenarios) for headquarters because there are so many different roles that people have," Narrowe explained. "When I train AOCs, AOCs have a similar role. Faculty has a similar role. Up in Harmon Hall, they have so many different roles that it's hard to target exactly what we're looking at for them, but we will do something for them as well."
"We are not going to shy away from that challenge," Bruno said.
Another challenge is whether the training should be annual for Academy staff members.
"The question is, how often do we need to do that? Because if you do it too often, then it becomes redundant, and it loses its effectiveness," Bruno said. "So we have to be careful. We haven't quite figured that one out yet. We want to balance keeping them current without becoming repetitive."
The Academy has continued its commitment to members of religions both inside and outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream since the 2010 conference. The Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle, an outdoor religious space for the Academy's small Pagan contingent, was dedicated in May 2011. Muslim basic cadets observed Ramadan during Basic Cadet Training in Jacks Valley earlier this year, and Hindu cadets celebrated a festival honoring Ganesha on Sept. 21.
Falcon Circle "is one concrete manifestation" of the Academy's devotion to religious respect and accommodation, Bruno said.
"Word has gotten around about it," he said. "I think the fact that it exists -- and oh, by the way, anyone can schedule its use through the chaplain corps ... I think that's a statement of accommodation," Bruno said. "Every reference to it that I've heard any senior leader use has always been a statement that it is a concrete expression of our commitment to accommodate.
"I'm asked questions. The chapel guides reference it when they're meeting tourists." However, they don't recommend people try to make the steep climb to the outdoor worship area, which sits atop a hill between the Cadet Chapel and the Visitor Center.
The religious respect training emphasizes the Defense Department policy on religion, which is to approve, when possible, requests for religious accommodation.
"The posture of the entire Department of Defense where issues of religion are concerned is to lean forward where possible -- not to back off, not to fall back and say, 'This is the military, we can't do that,'" Bruno explained. "It's exactly the opposite. You cannot say no based on a hypothetical situation."
Commanders should approve requests for religious accommodation when those requests do not adversely affect mission accomplishment, military readiness, unit cohesion or standards and discipline, according to DOD Instruction 1300.17, "Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services."
The Academy's environment provides a rich environment for creating religious respect training scenarios. For example, this year's spring break is scheduled such that cadets' designated travel day to return to the Academy is Easter Sunday. Another example is Saturday classes, which run afoul of the Jewish Shabbat.
"The important learning lesson is this: When we had class on Saturdays, I couldn't do anything," Narrowe said. "I didn't make a move -- because who am I requesting religious accommodations for? Is it for me, or is it for the cadets? I had to wait for cadets to come to me and say, 'Rabbi, I have Jewish Shabbat on class, can you help?' Then I was ready to go in and do a (scheduling committee action).
"It's not for the DOD to posture in the sense that we're going to be sensitive to every religious faith, because if we posture that we're not going to do anything on any religious holiday. You could never have an exercise," Narrowe continued. "So it's up to the individual service member to account for his or her religious needs. That's what we train the cadets: As commanders, it's not up to you to accommodate for every single faith -- it's up to you to create a climate where the people working for you feel comfortable enough to ask for religious accommodations, and then you're postured to accommodate."
In that context, chaplains ensure commanders are aware of potential religious needs within the unit, Bruno said.
The conference will include presentations by Cadet 1st Class Monique Pal, the Cadet Interfaith Council president, and by three other cadets on the council. Pal has been involved with the Interfaith Council since she was a freshman in 2009.
The council is much more involved with planning and outreach than it was in 2010, said Pal, a Hindu and a native of Savannah, Ga.
"We do a lot more planning than we did before," she said. The council sets up religious awareness events, regular interfaith discussions and community outreach.
It has also taken on the President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.
"With the president's challenge, not only are we getting together to talk, we're also getting together to volunteer," she said.
The council is made possible by the diversity within the cadet student body, Pal said. The interfaith council experience is unique because the differences are what bring the cadets on the council together.
"It's not just a unit group. We're from all different squadrons and all different faith backgrounds," she said. "What makes it unique is that we're coming together because of our different faiths."
The religious respect training, the Cadet Interfaith Council and the conferences serve an additional purpose: helping the Academy recover not just from the climate of religious intolerance that existed prior to 2005 but also from the harsh scrutiny that ensued when the religious atmosphere here was brought to light.
"This place was shell-shocked when it came to issues of religion," Bruno said. "No one wanted to touch it. It was too negatively consequential. I said, you can't continue to graduate the future officer corps of the Air Force under that environment, with an inability or a fear of discussing anything religious."
After they graduate, cadets will become commanders, and they will command people of faith and their families, Bruno said.
"You can't prepare them to do that adequately if you're not competent talking about faith," Bruno said. "So part of the interactive nature that promotes discussion ... is to help this institution recover its ability to have a healthy, robust discussion of matters of religion without feeling that someone's going to come put the hammer on them."
The other issue he noticed was how the Academy's climate allows cadets to understand how religious differences between American and Middle Eastern cultures affect international relations and military operations.
"At the Joint Staff, we would deal with religion at the strategic level: religion and international security, religion and global diplomacy," Bruno said. "In the five countries with which we are most engaged ... there is no separation of church and state. The two are married and have been for centuries: It's in their culture, it's in their economy, and it's in their history. So you can't send American military leaders over there with an inability to facilitate those kinds of discussions.
"So what we've been trying to do here is inject the strategic dimensions of religion in other forms, such as the National Character and Leadership Symposium," he continued.
"I've had as many as three speakers who were brought in specifically to speak to these issues." An upcoming faculty brown bag luncheon will discuss the role of religion in American public discourse.
"It goes beyond Bible studies and invocations to the broader dimensions of religion," Bruno said. "We don't do that in the religious respect training program; that's a separate issue. All we want to be able to do here is talk about things from a tactical perspective so they feel comfortable having a discussion about matters of religion."
Several chaplains at major commands, including Air Combat Command, Air Force Materiel Command, Air Education and Training Command and Pacific Air Forces, are scheduled to attend the 2012 conference in addition to Air Force Chief of Chaplains staff members and an Air Staff division chief, Bruno said.
"We're going to take them through scenario-based training. That's on the agenda. Call it a show-and-tell if you will," Bruno said. "That's exactly what we did with the Board of Visitors."
Ambassador Susan Schwab, the outgoing Board of Visitors chair, said the Academy's religious health was at its best of the four years she was chair after experiencing the training. That does not mean, however, that the Academy can declare "mission accomplished," Bruno said.
Bruno said he hopes to highlight the Academy's progress since 2010 when the religious respect conference convenes Tuesday.
"We have a story to tell, and we want to tell it. We want to be transparent about, and we want to put on the table what we're doing, because the people who are coming here -- this is their realm, this is their life," he said. "The idea is to say, here's what we're doing, here's where we were two years ago, here's what we've developed since, here's what we've learned."
Bruno cautioned against sounding triumphant, because religious respect training is a continuous process for the 1,000 new cadets and several hundred staff and faculty members who rotate into and out of the Academy annually. Instead, he said, chaplains will present their lessons learned and ask for constructive feedback on how to improve the program.
"In short, we hope they can help us see something that maybe we're not seeing," he said.
While there's still work to be done, Bruno said he's proud of the team that has brought things to this point.
"I'm really proud of the team that's labored to develop this and help the Academy achieve its desired outcomes in this area," he said. "We have by no means solved all the problems here, but we have made huge strides, and we have accomplished a certain degree of success. The cadets tell us that; the faculty tell us that. If I can leave here with the place better than I found it in this area, then I'm a happy camper."