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Mikey's Army 

The high-powered men and women who have taken their positions fighting religious intolerance in the military

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This is the second of a two-part series. Last week's cover story profiled Mikey Weinstein, who is suing the Air Force over religious intolerance at his alma mater. (That story can be read here.) This week's focus is on his newly formed Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and the men and women who have joined the cause.

David Antoon could not have been prouder of his son's accomplishments. At 18, Ryan was a solid academic, a rock climber, skydiver, glider pilot and hockey player.

Ryan's appointment to the Air Force Academy was a natural especially given that his father, a retired full colonel and decorated Vietnam veteran, had graduated from the academy in 1970, then gone on to fly more than 100 combat missions and airlift 1,000 refugees out of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

In the family tradition, Ryan had been working his way to the academy for a long time. Earning an appointment, his father says, was "the only thing he ever wanted to do."

In April 2004, David Antoon accompanied his son to Colorado Springs for the academy's orientation for new cadets. What he witnessed, he says, left him gut-level troubled.

The opening speech was delivered by Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, then the commander of the school. Antoon encapsulates Weida's message into four words: "warrior, warrior, warrior, warrior." By contrast, Antoon says the academy he had attended carried the constant refrain of "leadership, leadership, leadership, leadership," as in, "training leaders for America."

Weida's speech was followed by a grueling 90-minute slide-show presentation detailing how the Air Force prosecutes cases of sexual assault. The academy was still reeling from the rape and sexual assault scandals of the year before, and Antoon sat there, wondering, "What is going on here?"

Next, the group was taken to the chapel.

"They got us toward the front, where there were 10 young chaplains lined up," Antoon says. What followed was "a very boastful talk about how they had half the cadet wing attending Bible study on Monday nights in the dormitory, and were very enthusiastic about increasing that number." The speech, delivered by chaplain Maj. Warren "Chappy" Watties, was followed with joyful refrains of "Amen" and Hallelujah" from the other chaplains.

click to enlarge "What has happened to this place? This is the Air Force Academy, not an evangelical college."  David Antoon - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • "What has happened to this place? This is the Air Force Academy, not an evangelical college." David Antoon

"I just couldn't believe it. What has happened to this place? This is the Air Force Academy, not an evangelical college."

On the drive to Denver for their flight back to Ohio, Antoon talked with his son about exploring alternatives. Ryan ended up giving up his appointment and attending Ohio State University instead.

Antoon says that his decision to advise his son against attending one of America's elite military installations tormented him for months. He wrote to the academy's alumni association, the Association of Graduates, with his concerns. Its response? The association doesn't get involved in policy issues.

Over the next several months, with increasing alarm, Antoon noticed mounting news accounts detailing the academy's evangelical environment, as well as statements appearing in the public forum by top military brass. He read that Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin the nation's deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence had told an audience this about a Muslim warlord in Somalia: "I knew my god was bigger than his. I knew that my god was a real god, and his was an idol."

"I was flabbergasted that he could, in uniform, go around saying [this]," Antoon says. "While we're bombing [Iraq]? Come on. This war is not about Islam."

He learned more about Chaplain Watties, who had baptized people in Saddam Hussein's swimming pool and was named the Air Force's Chaplain of the Year in 2004.

Antoon contacted the press. He told his story. Soon, he got a call from Mikey Weinstein.

To educate and litigate

Antoon was not the only person whom Weinstein contacted. As detailed in last week's Independent, the New Mexico attorney is suing the Air Force for fostering a climate of religious intolerance at the Colorado Springs-based Air Force Academy.

But he's not stopping with one federal lawsuit. Over the past several months, Weinstein, a 1977 academy graduate, has assembled a group of men and women to help take up the battle against religious intolerance not just at the academy, but throughout all branches of the United States Armed Forces.

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Designed to educate and litigate, the newly formed Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) is a watchdog group working to restore and maintain religious plurality. Weinstein describes the foundation as a sort of an American Civil Liberties Union, or an Anti-Defamation League, or an Americans United for the Separation of Church and State but for the military. Its mission statement reads, in part:

"At a time when the United States is encouraging greater religious freedom in Muslim nations, it is imperative upon America to show by example that religious pluralism is a viable and preferred option. Any sign of hypocrisy in United States policy, official or otherwise, toward the free exercise of religion within the military makes it more difficult to convince others to follow our nation's chosen path.

"MRFF's role is to ensure that our government does indeed adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution; that it leads by example."

Its high-profile advisory board includes retired high-level military brass, scholars, a former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, religious leaders, public relations professionals, political consultants, authors people of great accomplishment from all walks of life. (See the accompanying profiles for more on individual foundation members.)

"One of the things about this [foundation] that I am so proud of is, it is so diverse, with people from all different backgrounds," says Antoon. "There has to be a change back to something reasonable."

A Big Fat lesson

The foundation's board members include the two women who were the first to document instances when proselytizing was occurring at the Air Force Academy.

In 2003, Kristen Leslie, an assistant professor at Yale University Divinity School, was invited to the academy to help improve pastoral care provided to victims of sexual assault.

The following summer, she and a team of six Yale students were invited back to the academy to observe and assess the work of the overall chaplaincy program.

In what would become known as the Yale Report, Leslie, along with academy chaplain MeLinda Morton, praised the 16-member team of chaplains for its enthusiasm but also raised the red flag over strident evangelical themes.

click to enlarge An Air Force Academy program for cadets, Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People (RSVP), includes video - talk-point presentations, including a clip of the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
  • An Air Force Academy program for cadets, Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People (RSVP), includes video talk-point presentations, including a clip of the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

One of the exercises they observed was Chaplain Watties telling cadets in basic training that they needed to go and tell their bunkmates to find Jesus. This was the same class of freshmen cadets that David Antoon's son would have joined, had he not given up his appointment.

"We were calling for some clarity from the top down as to the chaplain's role in the Air Force," Leslie says of the Yale Report.

When the findings went public, top brass responded with fury, claiming they were fabricated and patently false. Leslie was denounced as someone who had just blown through and didn't know what she was doing. (Counters Leslie: "If I can come in not knowing a lot about the military and I see [the problem], it must be a pretty big problem.")

Morton, a Lutheran minister, says she was asked to publicly denounce the report that had her own name on it as "not true." She refused.

Morton, who had been assigned to the Air Force in late 2002, was increasingly frustrated over the academy's climate of "systemic and pervasive growing religious intolerance," and a hierarchy that was wholly unwilling to address it. She routinely witnessed incidents in which influential faculty members promoted evangelical Christianity to cadets and staff. It reached the point, she says, that she began to acknowledge that "we have crossed this line so many times, we don't even know where the line is."

On Aug. 15, 2004, after the Yale Report came out, Morton became part of a team assigned to create a new program for cadets. Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People, or RSVP, was designed to address the problem of reported intolerance, Morton says. "What it ended up becoming was a nightmare."

Putting RSVP together was supposed to have been a 30-day project. Seven months and 17 major revisions later, the training package was finally rolled out.

"There were very powerful conservative evangelical forces on the campus, which set out to ensure that no messages of religious pluralism or toleration were really broadcast from the RSVP program, and certainly no accusations of evangelical proselytizing," Morton says.

Several film clips were incorporated into the multimedia program. Initially, there were snippets from The Last Samurai, in which an American comes to embrace a traditional form of Japanese spirituality, as well as Schindler's List, about a Nazi party member who saved more than 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust. Ultimately, Morton says, those clips were cut after receiving "vicious pushback" from critics who demanded to know, "What in the world do these [films] have to do with spirituality?"

During numerous RSVP meetings, those same critics, Morton says, invariably asked her, "Why is it in your presentations that the Christians never win?"

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"I was flabbergasted ... that they just viewed this as some sort of cosmic battle," she says.

What was incorporated into the video portion of RSVP is a clip from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The scene, apparently designed to teach tolerance of varying backgrounds and belief systems, shows the bride's aunt as she extends an offer of dinner to the groom. She is nonplussed when the bride informs her that he is a vegetarian. "Don't worry," the aunt responds. "I'll make lamb."

Within a couple of days after refusing to call her own report untrue, Morton says she was dismissed from many of her duties. "I took that as confirmation from the higher chaplain that my services were no longer valued," she says.

Shortly after that, unbeknownst to her boss, Morton got on an airplane and flew to New York for an interview with "60 Minutes."

"I tried and tried and tried to get the Air Force to be responsive, and the command structure was making it impossible," she says. "Here in America, we have a free press, and one of the options is to avail yourself of the press. I felt that Congress and the American people in general needed to be let in on what was going on at the Air Force Academy and in the Air Force in general."

She knew her career in the Air Force was over. Last July, Morton resigned her commission.

"I did not feel that I could any longer productively contribute pastorally or intellectually, and I'm not going to defraud the taxpayers if I'm not able to do the work I am supposed to do there," she says.

Like Leslie and Antoon, Morton hopes that MRFF will prove a change agent.

Says Leslie: "Part of the reality is, the Air Force wants this to go away. They did the same thing with the sexual assaults, and part of MRFF's role is to keep it in the public's attention."


The many faces of MRFF

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In addition to David Antoon, Kristen Leslie and MeLinda Morton, 13 other men and women so far have agreed to join the advisory board of Mikey Weinstein's Military Religious Freedom Foundation. They come from diverse backgrounds and bring a wide range of experience.

Bernard Marvin "Bud" Kauderer
Vice admiral, U.S. Navy (retired)

Bernard Marvin "Bud" Kauderer was the captain of a nuclear submarine for four years. Then he became captain of a submarine support ship, with a crew of 55 officers and 1,200 enlisted men. He moved on to command the naval nuclear-power training unit in Idaho, with a staff of 700 instructors and 1,200 students learning how to operate a nuclear power plant. Later in his career, he spent two years commanding all submarines in the Pacific fleet, then ascended to vice admiral and commanded all submarines in the Atlantic fleet, plus the NATO submarine force.

"I've had lots of experience, and lots of exposure to young people with different religious backgrounds," Kauderer notes, "and without it sounding too boastful, I think I can speak to this issue."

In his 33 years as a commanding officer, Kauderer never heard of an attempt by a chaplain to proselytize young, and often impressionable, sailors or anyone else in the armed forces, for that matter. It is, he says, simply inappropriate. The argument that free speech enables chaplains to do so, Kauderer says, is "irrelevant."

"It's not a free-speech issue, not when you entangle it with religious overtones," he says. "It's inappropriate in a military environment in any circumstance. That's not what the chaplains are there for; they are there to provide counseling on personal issues regardless of religion. They're not there to convert."

Kauderer was a Naval Academy classmate of Mikey Weinstein's father. When the younger Weinstein called to ask him to serve on his board of advisors, Kauderer readily agreed. Members of the armed services, he says, must be allowed to feel comfortable and secure in their own religion, without being concerned that someone in a senior position is placing coercive pressure to adopt another religion.

"It's like working in a business and having your boss try to impose his religious beliefs on you, and you are concerned that your job security depends on compliance with his requests, and your future evaluations of performance could be affected," he says. "An individual ought to have the freedom to believe in the religion in which he's brought up, or adopted, or no religion at all. This is the United States of America."

Pedro Luis Irigonegaray
Attorney

Pedro Luis Irigonegaray is perhaps best known for representing mainstream science in last year's court case involving efforts by the Kansas State Board of Education to install intelligent design into that state's public school curriculum.

The Topeka attorney was born in Havana, Cuba; leaving his father and two sisters behind, he and his mother fled as political refugees in 1961. "We left," he says, "because we were not going to be free in Cuba."

For 30-some years, Irigonegaray has prided himself on representing individuals with little or no voice, including gays and lesbians. He has gladly joined the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

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"Today, we are facing immense challenges from individuals that fail to recognize that the separation of church and state is a cornerstone to liberty," Irigonegaray says. "I respect Mikey [Weinstein] immensely, and am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder and say "Enough' to those who want to shove their religious beliefs down everyone's throats.

"While I consider myself a very open-minded person, I want to make sure we have the best military in the world, and we are not going to have the military we want or deserve as a nation if soldiers who do not agree with these views are not going to be made to feel equal, and not be provided with the promotions they deserve."

Doug Turner
Political consultant, strategic communications

From Tom DeLay to Jack Abramoff and the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, scandals in Washington have hurt the Republican Party and exposed an ugly reality: Many who purported to be righteous and good and honest, well, are not, as it turns out. The vows from the Newt Gingrich "Contract with America" era have been broken.

Doug Turner knows such things about his party. The founder of a New Mexico-based strategic communications and public issues company engineered the campaign of former New Mexico Republican governor Gary Johnson in 1994 and 1998. He has provided political and strategic counsel to such Fortune 500 companies as Lloyd's of London, Wal-Mart and Chevron. He is currently in Japan, an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Turner was stunned, he says in an interview from Tokyo, when he learned that evangelical Christian groups like the National Association of Evangelicals and Focus on the Family were actually maintaining that open proselytizing is appropriate within the armed services.

"Separation of church and state is designed to protect [their rights] as much as everyone else's rights," he says.

The far right's influence is clear at the upper echelons of the federal government, Turner notes. It won't always be so.

"Today, these groups carry a lot of juice in the administration. That said, I don't think they will always carry this much juice. There is some disappointment among some moderate Republicans, seeing the tent may not be as big as it was.

"So we will either see people leaving the party or voting differently within the party."

Howard Bragman
Publicist

Howard Bragman just turned 50. He grew up in Flint, Mich., and he's Jewish.

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"When I was a kid, we did prayers to Jesus in school, and I know what it's like to be the outsider in a public system, and I don't want other kids to feel bad."

Bragman's a Los Angeles publicist and media consultant, and has trained movie stars and elected officials and attorneys in the art of being in the public spotlight. He founded his public relations agency, Fifteen Minutes, in 2004, after selling another successful PR agency he had founded. One of his early clients was Joe Steffan, the decorated Naval Academy graduate who was forced to leave the Navy in 1989 after he confided to a friend that he was gay.

Last year, Bragman learned about Mikey Weinstein's battle with the Air Force.

"I read an article in the newspaper about Mikey Weinstein and his fight, and the more I read about it, the more it pissed me off," Bragman says. "I said, "I want to help this man,' and so I called Mikey. I didn't know him from Adam and Eve."

Like many of the foundation's members, Bragman says the current political climate in the United States is alarming. Many members of Congress don't want to be perceived as anti-Christian or anti-religion. Bragman says he's not surprised that the Bush government "is getting away with so much."

"I'm surprised we're not having more of these discussions," he says. "We have an incredibly evangelical government on so many levels I know anecdotally that it's going on a lot more than it's talked about."

Bob Herres
Former commander of NORAD and U.S. Space Command

Bob Herres is a former commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and was the first commander of U.S. Space Command, both in Colorado Springs. After his military retirement, Herres served as the director of USAA Insurance for 19 years. Now living in San Antonio, Texas, he is an ecumenical elder in his Presbyterian church.

"I do not ever want to see our country as a theocracy, or even [see it] pretend to be," he says. "I think that it is a possibility against which we should be vigilant and cautious ... this is the first time in our history that we have had this much government support for one group or faith."

At the heart of the issue, Herres says, is what the chaplaincy within the military is and should be about. Chaplains have specific religious training and identities, such as Methodist or Presbyterian or Episcopalian. However, in ministering to everyone, they are in uniform, and thus should approach their jobs and roles accordingly.

"People of all faiths, from time to time, have spiritual needs, and a chaplain is one place where they should be able to turn," Herres says. "If a chaplain doesn't want to do it on an ecumenical basis, then he should turn in his uniform and go. The government isn't paying them to evangelize."

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Rounding out the team

MRFF advisers include myriad medalists, sterling scholars

Reza Aslan is considered one of the nation's most respected experts on Islam and the Middle East. He is the author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.

Retired Brig. Gen. Robert S. Dotson flew on 128 combat missions during 1969 and 1970, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and eight Air Medals for his service. He later served at the Pentagon and, after becoming a civilian, worked in government as a national-security specialist for two decades, both in the Executive Office of the President and in the Armed Services Committee in the U.S. Senate.

Eugene R. Fidell heads the Military Practice Group at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell LLP. A graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard's Officer Candidate School and the U.S. Navy's Naval Justice School, Fidell has written extensively on military law and has taught the subject at Harvard and Yale university law schools.

Mala Htun is assistant professor of political science at the New School for Social Research in New York. A former fellow of the Kellogg Institute of the University of Notre Dame and the Radcliffe Institute of Harvard, she holds a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard and an A.B. in international relations from Stanford University.

Retired Air Force Col. Richard L. Klass graduated second in his class at the U.S. Air Force Academy, was a 1966 Rhodes Scholar, and received his master's from Oxford University. During his Air Force career, he was awarded the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, 11 Air Medals and the Purple Heart. A former White House fellow, he returned to the academy to serve as assistant professor of political science and instructor in the flying training program. He is currently executive director of a bipartisan veterans' political action committee dedicated to electing veterans to the Senate and House of Representatives.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. John J. Michels Jr. graduated from the Air Force Academy and Duke Law School and is a partner in McGuireWoods, an international law firm. He is a litigation attorney with extensive labor and employment law experience.

Richard T. Schlosberg III, the immediate past president and CEO of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, previously was publisher and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Times, executive vice president of The Times Mirror Company, and publisher and CEO of the Denver Post. He graduated from the Air Force Academy and earned a master's degree with honors in business administration from Harvard Business School. He served five years as an Air Force pilot and is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He is currently a national board member of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Air and Space Museum, among numerous organizations.

Smita Singh is the special advisor for global affairs and director of the Global Development Program for The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Prior to joining the foundation, she was a scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies.

Cara DeGette

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