Cadet Interfaith Council promotes discourse, understanding

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Don Branum
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
If you've ever heard the saying, "Never discuss religion or politics in polite company," you probably already know why: either topic can transform ordinary conversation into a verbal sparring contest or even a brawl. However, a group of about 20 cadets here wants to make sure people feel safe talking about their beliefs with their comrades in arms.

During the most recent meeting of the Cadet Interfaith Council, held in Sijan Hall Oct. 20, cadets representing each of the faith groups on base discussed refining its mission statement and preparing for a religious respect conference that will take place at the Academy in November.

The council was established in 2005 to improve the religious climate at the Academy. Cadet 2nd Class Philicia Fahrenbruch is the president of the council, which has met five times so far this year. She first became involved with the council two years ago, at the invitation of Chaplain (Capt.) Gary Davidson, who is now the 11th Wing chaplain at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

"A few other friends were on the council ... so that got me more interested in it," she said. "I still talk to (Chaplain Davidson) occasionally."

Cadet Fahrenbruch was elected in August. Before that, she served as acting president during part of the spring semester.

"This year (involved) a lot of rebuilding," the Falcon, Colo., native said. "We're pretty much done, but we had to get representatives from all the different faith groups. This was the first meeting where we had representatives from every single faith group."

The greatest challenge facing the council now is educating other cadets, Cadet Fahrenbruch said. Religious tolerance classes taught during Basic Cadet Training set the ground rules, but the council members occasionally encounter areas where the rules of engagement need to be clarified.

"What came up last year was that SPIRE time was religious education on Mondays, and people were worried about freshmen having military training or other education during that time," she said. "Occasionally someone will try to have a briefing or squadron event."

The council worked with the base chaplains to make sure that the SPIRE, or Special Program in Religious Education, groups could meet Monday evenings during set-aside times without interruption.

In August, the council addressed the use of e-mails to advertise religious activities. Such e-mails may only be sent to individuals who are interested, with exceptions requiring approval from the Cadet Wing chaplain. Chaplain (Capt.) Steven Cuneio said the chaplain's office is drafting a policy that will balance cadets' ability to advertise events while preserving other groups' rights not to receive the e-mails.

Cadets at the council's September meeting discussed what constitutes proselytizing, which Cadet Fahrenbruch defined as pressuring someone to attend a religious service after they've already declined.

"If someone comes up and says, 'Can you please tell me about your religion,' that's just a conversation and doesn't really cross the line into proselytizing," she said, reflecting the council's philosophy that the Academy is a "marketplace of free ideas."

"Proselytizing is when people have undue influence, like a senior telling a freshman, 'You should go to church with me,'" she added. "On a peer-to-peer level, it's okay, but not from an upperclassman to a freshman."

The council also discussed how to publicize its existence so that cadets who feel they have been harassed or proselytized can report it. Cadet Fahrenbruch said she wants cadets to know they have an outlet within the chain of command for reporting such incidents.

Cadets at the meeting agreed that the religious climate is good overall, and while a handful of cadets may break the rules, they are the exception. Their comments included observations that most people are curious, open-minded and respectful and that the Academy as an institution has supported them.

One thing cadets don't have to worry about is getting time to attend worship services, said Cadet Fahrenbruch, who is Jewish.

"I have Friday night services, and I have a special pass," she said. "No one's ever had a problem with that. Everyone's really understanding if I miss training on Friday nights to go to Chapel."

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