The Pentagon will investigate complaints of widespread proselytizing and favoritism for Christians at the Air Force Academy, its second probe of the Colorado Springs campus in two years.
The announcement Tuesday by Michael L. Dominguez, acting Air Force secretary, made clear that the actions of senior commanders would be reviewed to see if they "enhance or detract from a climate that respects both the free exercise of religion and the establishment clauses of the First Amendment."
Among the complaints: A professor who required cadets to pray before taking his test, a Protestant chaplain who warned anyone not proselytizing would "burn in the fires of hell," and a football coach who hung a locker room banner announcing: "I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."
Two years ago, the Defense Department and the Air Force sent teams to the academy after nearly 150 women came forward to say they had been assaulted by fellow cadets over the past decade. Many alleged they were punished, ignored or ostracized by commanders when they spoke out.
The academy's top commanders were replaced and officials began intensive efforts to change a climate they said had made the scandal possible.
The latest task force will be led by Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady, and is to give a preliminary report by May 23. The academy released a statement saying it would cooperate with the investigation.
The academy said the religious tolerance problem came to light through internal surveys, and commanders then invited staff and cadets to report religious discrimination. Fifty-five cases were reported.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which investigated, said prayers were held before academy sanctioned events and students, faculty and staff frequently pressured cadets to attend chapel and receive religious instruction.
The academy's No. 2 officer, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, is a self-described born-again Christian, and critics say he frequently mixes religion with his official duties.
In an e-mail in May 2003 he urged cadets to "ask the Lord to give us the wisdom to discover the right. ... The Lord is in control. He has a plan for ... every one of us." Later he issued a memo stating that cadets are accountable first to their God.
Academy spokesman Johnny Whitaker said Weida now runs his messages by several other commanders before sending them. Weida did not immediately respond to a request for an interview Tuesday.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State said evangelical Christians wield too much power.
"The close relationship between the academy and evangelical Christianity sends a message of exclusion to those of other faiths," said Rev. Barry Lynn, the group's executive director.
Lynn praised the formation of the task force but said members planned to monitor the situation. After the complaints became public, commanders organized religious tolerance classes and ordered everyone at the academy to attend.
Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group based near the academy, criticized the investigation.
"The Air Force trains the cadets to make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary, and even to imply that it is wrong to talk about the ultimate meaning of life, which is religious, is absurd," said Tom Minnery, director of public policy.
© 2005 The Associated Press