Leaders at the Air Force Academy seem to think that dealing with some complaints about religious bias isn't worth their time.
That's the most obvious takeaway from several of the 2,516 pages of documents, mostly e-mails, the academy recently turned over to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation in response to a records request submitted last November.
Asked if those and other e-mails suggest the academy doesn't take the foundation seriously, AFA officials danced around the question, saying in a written statement that it "respects all organizations dedicated to the principles of integrity, truthfulness, religious respect and religious freedom..."
"We seek to work constructively with these groups to continue fostering religious respect at the Air Force Academy," the statement said.
But that runs contrary to Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould's apparent desire to avoid dealing with MRFF and its founder, Mikey Weinstein, who has dogged his alma mater for what he calls a pervasive evangelical Christian atmosphere.
An e-mail string contained in the records given to MRFF shows that on Sept. 23, 2010, Gould's aide, Maj. Peter Gryzen, sent Gould a message, offering to direct MRFF e-mails into a subfolder of Gould's inbox, "given the volume of MRFF emails you get."
Within minutes, Gould wrote back, "Best solution would be to block them from reaching my machine. I'm done with him."
Asked what Gould's reaction says about his desire to deal with religion issues, the academy didn't address the question but rather stated the institution has "a close working relationship" with other religious organizations.
Weinstein's efforts began in 2004 and resulted in the Air Force conducting two reviews of the academy's religious atmosphere, in 2005 and this year. Neither acknowledged a systemic problem. The academy also has convened at least two religion summits amid Weinstein's complaints and started providing cadets with information on the free exercise of religion and the prohibition against government establishment of a preferred faith.
In an interview, Weinstein says the recently released documents suggest those efforts might have been an act, because the records reveal a "pernicious system of bias and bigotry." Adds Dave Mullin, a foundation member and former academy professor now at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, "There's a consistent hostile tone against Mikey Weinstein and MRFF." He says the e-mails carry a message of, "How do we get rid of him? How do we ignore his complaints?"
"Completely and comprehensively," says Mullin, who was a plaintiff against the academy in a religious freedom case in February, "they didn't want to deal with anything having to do with his complaints. He might forward complaints of MRFF clients who were agonizing, and they just blew it off."
For example, on Sept. 24, 2010, Weinstein forwarded a message to Dean of Faculty Brig. Gen. Dana Born. In it, the writer complained that the Bible was the only sacred text that appeared in an academy prep school prisoner of war display.
Born sent the message to others at the academy, saying, "hate to forward these — not worth the time usually you will spend reading it."
In another case, on Sept. 30, 2010, Weinstein forwarded to Born a complaint from an unidentified person about a New Testament verse painted in a dorm hallway. Born sent the message to Gould and chaplain Col. Robert Bruno, saying, "Mikey is clearly trying to undermine your and our vision of institutional pride."
"I got five emails from MRFF yesterday and chose not to respond," Born continued.
Bruno responded: "[Weinstein] may be suffering from attention deficit syndrome: no one is listening or responding, but we'll continue maintaining the high road and doing the right thing."
In its written response to the Indy's follow-up questions, the academy said the e-mail was taken out of context, that the Bible verse had been removed before Weinstein's e-mail, and that the academy "is dedicated to creating an inclusive and respectful environment."
The MRFF wasn't given any records surrounding the volatile dispute over its unsuccessful lawsuit to stop Lt. Clebe McClary from speaking at the academy's 2011 National Prayer Luncheon in February. Nor were there records of MRFF's objections over methods used by retired Air Force Gen. Patrick Gamble in assessing the academy's religious climate last winter.
That's because the academy didn't provide documents beyond Nov. 17, 2010. AFA officials claim they began their records collection on that date, following MRFF's Nov. 2, 2010 request.
But the foundation's attorney, Caroline Mitchell of San Francisco, says the academy told her client on March 14 that one more request was ahead of MRFF's, and then the MRFF request would be dealt with. Mitchell says previous court decisions have required the cut-off date for such requests to be the date the search begins — in this case sometime after March 14. The documents were provided in July.
"The failure to include all responsive documents is inexcusable and the Academy is in violation of federal law..." Mitchell writes in an Aug. 1 letter to the academy, demanding the immediate release of more recent documents.
But the academy says it's not working on that. "If the requestor seeks material subsequent to the cut-off date of the original request, he or she can submit an additional FOIA request," it said in a written statement.
Once again, Weinstein threatens to sue and reiterates that AFA leadership be changed.
"We've called over and over again for Gould to be fired," he says.
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