Academy Religious Respect Conference Not for Atheists

On October 30th and 31st, the US Air Force Academy will celebrate its bi-annual Religious Respect Conference to highlight progress since its 2010 conference. Major changes seem to be in two main areas. The first area is increased services for religious groups that are, according to the official Academy article regarding the Conference, “outside the Judeo-Christian Mainstream” like Hindus, Muslims, and Wiccans. The second change is the separation of the chaplains from support for any nontheistic groups or beliefs. That story was left out of the Academy’s article, but hopefully it will be addressed in future reports. Non-chaplain leaders at USAFA are now trying to fill the gap in services and to address the impact on the climate of respect at the Academy that have resulted from this new exclusion of nontheists from chaplain services.

Humanists and others without a faith-based or divine world view have no access to chaplain services, and Academy leaders are trying to compensate.

Respect for nontheists?

Chaplains will apparently still enjoy full funding, authority for training, and access to all service members, regardless of belief. Chaplains will be allowed to counsel all airmen, including nontheists, but they will not have any training on nontheistic beliefs nor will they be required to provide any services or advocacy for nontheists.

Non-chaplain leaders at the Academy are stepping in to try to replace some of these services for nontheist cadets and to ensure there are no negative effects on culture and climate. During the Academy’s summer basic trainings, there were alternatives to church for cadet Freethinkers. (Freethinkers is the collective name preferred by USAFA cadets to refer to atheists, humanists, and other nontheists). Instead of going to chaplains for meetings and events, cadets have worked through the regular cadet clubs route, just like study groups, sports, and other extracurricular activities. Cadets have had trips and meetings approved. Between the basic training events and approval of events, it is clear that many Academy leaders want to support the nontheists. Even with these several additional programs, there are still a number of unaddressed issues.

Support from Academy leaders has made all the difference for cadets. Colonel Pipan, Director of Training Support (and cadet clubs), stepped in to support the new Freethinkers club that was established after cadets lost chaplain (SPIRE) support. Colonel Renner, Vice Commandant for Climate and Culture, has helped to mitigate feelings of exclusion. Dr Carlos Bertha (Associate Professor of Philosophy) serves as Officer In Charge (faculty adviser) for the Freethinkers group and other senior officers have helped support the cadets informally.

Colonel Tamra Rank, Vice Superintendent of the Air Force Academy, spoke with Jason Torpy on Friday and agreed to discuss the issues of the Freethinkers in more detail. She reiterated her commitment to ensuring that the cadet Freethinkers (nontheists, etc) are treated equally. While this year’s Religious Respect Conference will have no nontheistic representation, discussions with Col Rank will provide an avenue to ensure Respect at USAFA does extend to all cadets regardless of belief.

This year’s conference

MAAF requested inclusion in the Religious Respect Conference, but Academy chaplains declined to send an invitation and even declined to mention the event despite several direct requests. According to the October 26th article published by the Academy, the event will focus on minority religious events as well as the Religious Respect Training that has been implemented since the 2010 Conference. Chaplains may rightfully celebrate major steps forward, including a Hindu celebration for Lord Ganesha, the building of the new Falcon Circle for Wiccan services, and the successful accommodation of Muslims when Ramadan occurred during rigorous cadet basic training.

The Academy has taken some criticism for building the $80,000 Falcon Circle facility. This is not just $80,000 for a few pagans at USAFA, it is a unique facility open and available for religious services for any cadets. MAAF has highlighted that this facility sets an encouraging new precedent for chapel facilities. Falcon Circle is one of the only if not the only government-funded, general-use chapel facility that is not built in the Christian tradition of pews and an altar. The military should use Falcon Circle as an example of how to draw from a greater diversity of religious traditions when building (or renovating) general-use “chapel” facilities.

At the 2010 Religious Respect Conference, the Academy made a giant leap forward by inviting Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers to participate.  The USAFA event led to increased communication, including a visit to the Air Force Chaplains Corps College and direct participation, for over a year, in development of Religious Respect Training programs for cadets, staff, and faculty. Cadet Freethinkers were invited back into the SPIRE program and had a delegate on the Academy’s Interfaith council. Freethinkers at the Academy were moving ever closer to equal rights.

Earlier this year, the Air Force Chief of Chaplains sent a memorandum (in response to a request for Freethinker funding that would be equal to that received by other SPIRE groups). The memorandum indicated that USAFA chaplain support for nontheists should end. At this time, nontheists are excluded from the Interfaith Council, chaplain programs (SPIRE), Religious Respect training development, and the Religious Respect Conference program. The interpretation and response to the memorandum is under appeal but in the meantime, non-chaplain leaders at the Academy and Freethinkers are left with a number of unanswered questions.

One unanswered question relates to events like the Religious Respect Conference, MAAF hoped to be included in the conference this year. The event was chaplain-run but was clearly an event broadly concerned with command climate and policy. The inclusion of non-chaplain command representatives, secular civil rights leaders, and legal personnel in the discussions makes it clear this was not an event exclusively for traditional theistic clergy. Inclusion of MAAF as a nontheistic representative would have allowed for continuation of progress positive communication, in person. The Conference will primarily include Chaplain Endorsers who are senior clergy and often prior military officers who advocate for cadets who share their beliefs. MAAF could have provided a representative for the nontheists. The new Air Force Instruction 1-1 makes clear a place for “religion and other personal beliefs” which includes nontheists. A nontheist representative would have added diversity to the event while also allowing a platform for other leaders to address perceived disrespect by nontheists.

In the recent Academy-published article on the Conference, Chaplain Josh Narrowe, who was a close partner during the training development in early 2011, was quoted as saying: “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.” This quote about respect is encouraging because it emphasizes that people have rights and those rights include the opportunity to honestly disagree about our beliefs. The quote however is something that readers should apply to the entire article — wherever ‘faith groups’ are mentioned the absence of nontheistic groups stands out. What about groups that live, grieve, love, and make meaning in life through modes other than faith, or supernatural divine religious practices? Will respect be afforded the atheists, humanists and other nontheists who happen to practice in ways different than chaplains are used to? Cadet Monique Pal, Interfaith Council President, said “What makes it unique is that we’re coming together because of our different faiths”, but conspicuously left out are the nontheists.

The Academy’s Head Chaplain, Robert Bruno said, “You can’t continue to graduate the future officer corps of the Air Force … with an inability or a fear of discussing anything religious” said Chaplain Bruno and added that after they graduate, cadets will become commanders, and they will command people of faith and their families. Chaplain Bruno’s logic should be applied equally to the atheists, humanists, and other nontheists that cadets will command. There needs to be no fear of discussing our nontheistic demographic, a demographic larger than all non-Christian denominations. Commanders need to have an understanding of those types of beliefs so that they can accommodate those needs, especially if chaplains are protected and the entire responsibility falls to other command staff.

8 Responses to Academy Religious Respect Conference Not for Atheists

  1. Pingback: Center for Inquiry takes up fight against military evangelism | Secular News Daily

  2. Pingback: Academy Religious Respect Conference Not for Atheists | Secular News Daily

  3. And speaking of “Religious Respect”, here’s one for you.

    The following paragraphs include a complaint I filed first with the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) Equal Opportunity Office (EO), then with the Judge Advocate’s (JA) Office, and finally with the Inspector General’s (IG) Office here at USAFA.

    My complaint was in regards to an invocation that was given by a chaplain during the Senior Non Commissioned Officer Induction Ceremony that I was a part of on 17 Aug 2012. EO stated that my complaint didn’t qualify as a “formal complaint” since the chaplain “didn’t violate AF policy”. EO offered going the “informal” route (which would have been a meeting between myself, the chaplain, and the Vice Superintendent here at USAFA), but I declined knowing that a meeting would have accomplished absolutely nothing.

    Disagreeing with EO’s decision, I decided to take a different approach by presenting my complaint to a couple of colleagues (one high ranking military and the other a high ranking civilian) here at USAFA to get their thoughts on the situation. Both supported my view point and suggested I present my complaint to JA, which I did. JA suggested that I submit a form to change Air Force Instruction (AFI) 1-1 (noted below) and / or the “Revised Interim Guidelines concerning Free Exercise of Religion in the Air Force” (also noted below) through the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. (Note: AFI 1-1 supersedes the Revised Interim Guidelines). The problem with that is that I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the Instruction or Guideline, therefore I have no desire to change them. So instead of submitting a form, I decided to take things up with the IG.

    The IG has dismissed my claim stating that the chaplain “did not violate any policy or instruction during the conduct of the invocation.” Furthermore, the IG contacted Air Force Chaplains Office, as subject matter experts, and they concurred with the IG’s analysis. The IG has also suggested that I submit a form to request that AFI 1-1 be changed or revised to be more specific.

    My original statement that was submitted to the Equal Opportunity Office, Judge Advocate, and Inspector General reads as follows:

    “August 17th, 2012 was the night of the Senior NCO Induction Ceremony at the USAF Academy Falcon Club and I was one of the inductees. Everything was going well at this “mandatory event” until the invocation, which was given by USAFA Chaplain (Col) Robert Bruno. After being instructed (by either the Chaplain or the MC) to bow our heads (something I consider to be a Christian ritual in itself), Chaplain Bruno started the invocation.

    The invocation started off with “Dearly Heavenly Father”, included multiple references to “Lord”, and ended with “in his most holy name, amen.”

    I feel that invocations at military functions shouldn’t be allowed at all, and especially when the invocation is faith specific. The words and phrases used during Chaplain Bruno’s invocation made me feel as though I was being forced to take part in a Christian ritual and/or ceremony. I do not appreciate being forced (or highly encouraged) to attend military functions only to have to sit through the ritual of a religion that I do not subscribe to. What would have happened if I removed my shoes and socks, and then proceeded to the front of the banquet room where I then sat down to meditate? I’m guessing that Security Forces would have been called because I would have been seen as a crazy person. Well, I don’t do that because that isn’t what I’m there for. I was there to be inducted into the Senior NCO Corps, not attend a Christian service.

    The “Revised Interim Guidelines Concerning Free Exercise of Religion in the Air Force” (dated 9 Feb 2006) clearly states that “Public prayer should not imply government endorsement of religion and should not usually be a part of routine official business. Mutual respect and common sense should always be applied, including consideration of unusual circumstances and the needs of the command. Further, non-denominational, inclusive prayer or a moment of silence may be appropriate for military ceremonies or events of special importance when its primary purpose is not the advancement of religious beliefs. Military chaplains are trained in this matter.”

    AFI 1-1
    2.11. Government Neutrality Regarding Religion. Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. For example, they must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order, and discipline. Airmen, especially commanders and supervisors, must ensure that in exercising their right of religious free expression, they do not degrade morale, good order, and discipline in the Air Force or degrade the trust and confidence that the public has in the United States Air Force.

    2.12. Free Exercise of Religion and Religious Accommodation. Supporting the right of free exercise of religion relates directly to the Air Force core values and the ability to maintain an effective team.
    2.12.1. All Airmen are able to choose to practice their particular religion, or subscribe to no religious belief at all. You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.
    2.12.2. Your right to practice your religious beliefs does not excuse you from complying with directives, instructions, and lawful orders; however, you may request religious accommodation. Requests can be denied based on military necessity. Commanders and supervisors at all levels are expected to ensure that requests for religious accommodation are dealt with fairly.

    Not all of us practice the same faith (or any faith at all) as the chaplains, or even the guy or gal sitting next to us in the office. To assume that would be a major foul and the Chaplains should know better. After learning about “respect” during the Senior NCO Induction course, I should have been surprised when I heard the Chaplain’s words, but this isn’t new to the Air Force (or Armed Forces). This is an epidemic, and it needs to stop.”

    • Letter from the IG

      16 Oct 2012

      Dear MSgt Longcrier

      Thank you for giving our office the opportunity to address your concern regarding the invocation given during the Senior NCO Induction Ceremony on 17 Aug 12. We have conducted an independent and extensive complaint analysis of the issue you presented and determined that Chaplain (COL) Bruno did not violate any policy or instruction during the conduct of the invocation. Furthermore, we contacted Air Force Chaplains Office, as subject matter experts, and they concurred with our analysis. Additionally, they stated the invocation fell within the intent of existing guidelines. Based on these findings, the appropriate resolution path for this issue was to Dismiss.

      Although our office was unable to find any violation of policy, you do have other courses of action available. You may write the Air Force Chief of Staff (CSAF) requesting the “Revised Interim Guidelines Concerning Free Exercise 0/Religion in the Air Force” provide more specific instructions or guidance regarding the use of prayer during official ceremonies. Additionally, you may recommend changes to the Air Force Instruction 1-1 by submitting an AF Form 847, Recommendation/or Change of Publication, to the office of primary responsibility (OPR) which is the CSAF Staff (AF/CVA). The address for these offices is: 1670 Air Force Pentagon, Washington, DC 20330-1670

      We now consider your IG complaint to be closed; however, if you desire to appeal our findings, you will be expected to provide new/additional evidence that appropriately refutes our
      findings. Your appeal cannot be based merely on your disagreement with our findings. You must submit your appeal within 90 days of your receipt of this letter. Should you choose to do so, you can submit your appeal to our office or the next higher-level IG (SAFIIGQ). SAFIIGQ’s address is as follows:

      1140 Air Force Pentagon
      Washington, DC 20330-1140

  4. Falcon Circle was not built for “Wiccans” alone. It is an “Earth-Centered” place or worship and anyone is allowed to schedule using the space with proper coordination. Although the Pentacle is worn by most if not all Wiccans, it represents Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit; which many people and various traditions (not just Wicca) respect and revere. It seems that I have to make this clear with every article that comes out about Falcon Circle. Wicca is one tradition among hundreds, if not thousands of traditions that fall under the umbrella of Earth-Centered or Paganism.

    • Read the article again. MAAF praises the building circle and encourages other military leaders to take that example. There are many earth-centered traditions, not just Wiccan. I was trying to be exclusive with that.

      • Sorry if you felt that that came across as an attack. I understand your intent, but I just wanted to make it clear that Wicca isn’t the umbrella term for all other traditions…Paganism is. Great article Jason!

        • Glad you understand. And I definitely concur, heretics, heathens, pagans, Wiccans, Native, etc… All with their own nuances. I saw Dr Oringderff is listed as “Earth-Centered Spirituality” rather than Wiccan or pagan. Interesting wording…

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