Written by Emily Mullins
A pilot program at the United States Air Force Academy, designed to protect and respect religious diversity, came up for review recently with the intention to present it to the Department of Defense as curriculum for all U.S. military academies.
The Rev. Stephen Boyd, UCC minister for chaplains and specialized ministers, attended the Conference on Religious Respect at the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Oct. 30-31. The purpose of the conference was to access the progress made concerning the Academy's intentional efforts to acknowledge and respect all religions represented on campus.
In 2008, the Air Force Academy decided to scrutinize and evaluate its policies concerning religion, specifically proselytizing on the campus, after episodes were reported in the news media. As a result, in 2010, the Air Force created a specific curriculum which addresses the subject of religious respect for all cadets on the Academy grounds.
There was initial concern that the additional curriculum could overload the cadets. Adding to an academic program which combines the standard college material for recognized majors with the military training necessary for future officers could have made the workload difficult. But, as Boyd says, "the Chaplains and the academic staff realized the importance of addressing these issues and their significance in the grooming of their future officers and the impact on the ever-changing landscape of the Air Force."
During the two-day conference, cadets from the Hindu, African Methodist Episcopal, Non-Denominational Christian and Jewish traditions shared how the religious respect program had made their transition to the Academy less traumatic and allowed them to openly practice their faith traditions. C4C Wasim Soomro, a Muslim student, spoke about how the Academy's program accommodated his special needs during Ramadan and how the staff and faculty were willing to make time for his daily prayers.
"The student speakers offered an insight into the current religious climate on the campus and measured success of the staff and chaplains to make an extravagant welcome to men and women of all faith backgrounds," Boyd said. "I think they are making progress."
"But, as in other areas of the military, the Air Force Academy is currently grappling with the issue of religious respect and the freedoms of the Atheists and Free Thinkers. Experience has proven that the Religious Respect curriculum must broadly define religion in an attempt to be inclusive for all cadets who attend classes and to have their rights respected."
Boyd said, "I was impressed with the degree of self-reflection that the Academy and the Chaplain staff had undergone to secure the First Amendment rights of the students. They should be proud of the progress that they have made and the direction in which they are headed."