Air Force Academy chaplain says she was fired for speaking up

Friday, May 13, 2005

DENVER — The Pentagon task force looking into allegations of religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy didn’t have to wait long to see the controversy up close.

Two days after the task force arrived at the school, its No. 2 chaplain said she had been fired for speaking up about anti-Semitism and other reports of religious intolerance among cadets and staff, including allegations that evangelical Christians wield too much influence.

Capt. Melinda Morton said yesterday that she was fired last week as executive officer to Col. Michael Whittington, the academy’s chief chaplain, after he pressured her to deny a professor’s account of a religious service for new cadets last year. Morton remains a chaplain and administrator of a religious-tolerance program she helped create, The Denver Post reported.

Both chaplains had been scheduled to leave the school this year, with Whittington retiring and Morton scheduled for an overseas assignment. She called that an excuse to get rid of her.

“I believe I was fired, and I believe the other staff would say I was fired and that was the point of doing it,” she said in a telephone interview.

The Air Force’s chief chaplain, Maj. Gen. Charles C. Baldwin, said Morton had not been fired. Her duties have changed, however, because Whittington will retire in June, rather than in July as originally planned. Morton has been scheduled for reassignment to an Air Force base in Japan for some time, he said.

“It’s just a normal way of life when a person comes to the end of their assignment,” Baldwin said. “She is not doing the executive officer work except for the transition time when she hands it off to the new guy who’s coming in.”

The academy said Whittington was unavailable for comment because he was being interviewed by the Pentagon task force investigating more than 50 complaints of religious intolerance in the past several years, including cases in which one Jewish cadet was reportedly told the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus and another was called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet.

Morton said she was pressured to deny a report by Yale Divinity School professor Kristen Leslie that a chaplain told 600 cadets during basic training last year “to go back to their tents and tell their fellow cadets that those who are not born again will burn in the fires of hell.”

“I was told by Chaplain Whittington that if someone was going to be loyal to the chaplaincy and the Air Force, then someone would take a certain view of the Yale report and view Dr. Leslie as disloyal,” Morton said.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the atmosphere at the academy “becomes more poisoned” every day.

“Any dismissal that’s based on blowing the whistle on religious bias is an absolutely inexcusable act, and it certainly appears that is what has happened to Capt. Morton,” he said.

Morton also said the religious-tolerance training program she helped create was watered down after Air Force officials screened it last fall. She said Baldwin ordered the removal of several video clips, including one from the Holocaust movie “Schindler’s List” and another about American Indian religion.

She said he also objected to dramatizations of interactions between cadets of different religions, saying they were unfair to Christians.

Morton recalled him asking: “I would just like to know why in your presentation Christians never win.”

“Our mouths fell open,” she said.

Baldwin said yesterday he believed Christians were portrayed too often as being at fault.

“I wanted it to be more representative of the religious scenarios that exist there,” he said. “I wanted more diverse scenarios, perhaps a Buddhist cadet asking about permission to get their religious needs met.”

He said the movie clip, which showed Nazi soldiers shooting Jews, was too extreme, and that the Indian religion clip was superfluous.

Academy officials said the tolerance program will evolve as officials study cadets’ reactions. The school recently started requiring staff members and all 4,300 cadets to take the 50-minute class.

“We believe the class is teaching what we want it to teach, and that is: respect others’ beliefs,” academy spokesman Lt. Col. Laurent Fox said. “Did we get it 100 percent correct? No, but we’re going to continue to try to make it better.”

The scandal follows claims in 2003 by scores of female cadets who said they had been sexually assaulted; many also claimed they were punished or ignored by their commanders when they spoke up. The Air Force responded by overhauling leadership and instituting new policies.

More than 90% of the cadets identify themselves as Christian. A cadet survey in 2003 found that half had heard religious slurs and jokes. Asked why such problems exist at the academy and apparently not at West Point and the Naval Academy, Morton pointed to nearby Colorado Springs, home to several influential conservative Christian organizations.

“Because it is surrounded by very powerful evangelical organizations that have an agenda and have a lot of influence at the Air Force Academy and at the White House,” Morton said.

Tom Minnery, a spokesman for the Colorado Springs-based ministry Focus on the Family, has disputed such claims, saying an “anti-Christian bigotry” was developing at the school.

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