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Academy could be model for religious tolerance

Nov. 19, 2012 - 07:46AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 19, 2012 - 07:46AM  |  
A religious tolerance program credited with changing the culture of the Air Force Academy after a sexual abuse scandal and the proselytizing of cadets nearly a decade ago could soon be a requirement for every new airman entering basic training or Officer Training School.
A religious tolerance program credited with changing the culture of the Air Force Academy after a sexual abuse scandal and the proselytizing of cadets nearly a decade ago could soon be a requirement for every new airman entering basic training or Officer Training School. ()
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A religious tolerance program credited with changing the culture of the Air Force Academy after a sexual abuse scandal and the proselytizing of cadets nearly a decade ago could soon be a requirement for every new airman entering basic training or Officer Training School.

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A religious tolerance program credited with changing the culture of the Air Force Academy after a sexual abuse scandal and the proselytizing of cadets nearly a decade ago could soon be a requirement for every new airman entering basic training or Officer Training School.

The approvals are not final, but command chaplains are being briefed on the program this month, said academy Chief Chaplain (Col.) Robert Bruno.

"We think what we have is a model that could benefit the entire Air Force," Bruno said in a phone interview.

The Religious Respect Program has grown from a one-hour course on the First Amendment's clauses related to religious freedom, first offered two years ago to the cadet Class of 2014, to a course offered each year to all classes. First-year cadets and seniors take two one-hour courses; sophomores and juniors take a one-hour course.

The program is tailored to each class and the potential challenges cadets might face. First-year cadets, considered the most vulnerable to pressure, are offered strategies for how to handle someone who is attempting to exert unwanted religious influence. Training for seniors, who are on the verge of being commissioned as officers, is geared more toward promoting religious tolerance as commanders, Bruno said.

The training uses real-life scenarios to help cadets handle unwanted comments or attitudes toward their religious beliefs or those of others.

Faculty members receive training that addresses similar scenarios, but from the context of leading a classroom.

Cadets and faculty also are briefed on the First Amendment and the two clauses that address the free practice of religion and the prohibition against the government establishing religion.

So far, 6,000 cadets and 800 faculty members have taken the courses, Bruno said.

Last year was the first year the entire academy received the training, and this year it was given only to new faculty and returning faculty members who had not been through the training. The decision to offer the training to faculty members came out of a recommendation of the commission that reviewed the program in 2010.

Chaplain (Maj.) Shawn Menchion, the academy chapel's chief of plans and programs, said the goal is to rid the Air Force of "islands of intolerance." During a religious respect conference Oct. 30-31, Menchion relayed a story about a cadet who was ostracized for disclosing his religious beliefs during an icebreaker at a base visit.

"He shared who he was, what his faith background was. A little while after that, he noticed that no one came around him. What had happened was that one of the senior enlisted members shared with his junior enlisted [airmen] that they were not to go to him because of his religious background," Menchion said in a news release about the conference. "That moved me to tears because, in 2011, we still had to deal with discrimination based on someone's religion."

But there has been progress during the past two years, the chaplains said. A Muslim cadet who spoke at the conference relayed a story about being visited on his second night at the academy by the military guidance officer for his unit. The officer asked Cadet 4th Class Wasim Soomro what he needed to meet his religious needs and what time of day he prayed. As a result, Soomro was awakened five minutes before basic wake-ups for all other cadets so he could say his morning prayers, Menchion said in the news release.

Retired Col. Frank Clawson, representing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the conference, said he is encouraged by the academy's focus on religious tolerance rather than prohibiting any mention of religion.

"Our biggest concern was that ... we'd become a secular university with no opportunities for religious respect, and those who wanted to exercise their faith would be so looked down on that there would be no religious discussion at all," Clawson said in the news release.

Bruno said the biggest challenge now is making sure the curriculum stays relevant and determining how often it should be offered to faculty. He said if the program is adopted in other parts of the Air Force, the scenarios would have to be tailored to what airmen might experience in their communities.

The program, he said, is designed to elicit discussion and help cadets and faculty recognize how to give respect and be respectful of people of faith and no faith.

"Respect is not about faith," he said. "It is that basic value in a civilized society."

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