Thursday, November 1, 2018

Parents claim AFA cadet said slain Jews are "burning in hell forever"

Posted By on Thu, Nov 1, 2018 at 3:55 PM

COURTESY AIR FORCE ACADEMY
  • Courtesy Air Force Academy
The parents of an Air Force Academy freshman cadet are considering removing him from the school after upperclassmen told him, "The 11 Jews murdered would now be burning in hell forever because none of them had accepted Jesus as their savior prior to being shot and killed," according to the parents.

The comment, which came during the noon meal on Oct. 29, referenced the Oct. 27 massacre of 11 people at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

A Christian freshman cadet, we'll call him "C,"  talked to the Jewish cadet, who we'll call "J," about it later saying C, too, was outraged by the comments. J was particularly upset because he has living relatives who survived the Holocaust, J's parents told the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

C reported the incident to his parents, who suggested J contact MRFF, the Albuquerque-based nonprofit established by 1977 Academy grad Mikey Weinstein in 2004. Weinstein has long maintained that fundamentalist Christianity is the favored religion at the Academy, based on information passed on by more than 400 of MRFF's clients who work or study there.

J didn't report the incident through his chain of command or call MRFF. But J's parents did reach out to Weinstein on Oct. 30, Weinstein says.

Weinstein tells the Independent he tried to reach Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, who was said to be on leave and unavailable. Weinstein then contacted Col. Houston Cantwell, vice superintendent, who said he'd look into it and get back but he never did. Weinstein contacted several other Academy officials, but says no one responded.

The Indy sought a comment from Cantwell on Oct. 30. He wouldn't comment and referred the Indy to the Academy's Public Affairs Office, which issued a statement Nov. 1 saying the episode couldn't be substantiated and that the Academy "therefore [was] unable to provide a specific response." It went on to say there are "multiple avenues" available for staff and cadets to "bring forward concerns" but remain anonymous. The statement also said the Academy is committed to supporting the U.S. Constitution and supports "everyone's right to exercise his or her own religious beliefs, or to not subscribe to any religious beliefs."

"We welcome and celebrate the diversity of our cadet wing not only as an ethical issue, but because it is imperative to our mission. Intolerance divides us," the statement read in part.

Meantime, at 2:05 p.m. on Oct. 31, Silveria sent an email to Academy staff and cadets saying he was "outraged by the senseless loss of life and tragic impact to the families and loved ones of those lost." He also said the incident reminded him why he serves — "to support and defend the Constitution, guaranteeing all of us the freedom to exercise our own religion or no religion at all."

Silveria's statement also said:
We offer religious services and religious education through Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and Earth-Centered programs. These programs support the individuals that freely come to them, but do not proselytize or try to convert. Our chaplains also provide spiritual care for members from every religious or ideological perspective, including Freethinkers, Hindu, Latter-day Saints, Sikh, and other faiths, connecting them with resources for spirituality.
Weinstein: Retribution deters cadets from filing official complaints. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Weinstein: Retribution deters cadets from filing official complaints.
J's parents wouldn't allow their names to be used, saying in an email written to Weinstein and provided to the Indy, "We fear serious repercussions against our son and our family if our names were ever to be known."

In that message, the parents expressed disbelief they've heard nothing from the Academy, although it's worth noting neither they nor their son have officially reported the incident. Rather, they relied on MRFF to raise the issue.

"Why won’t they do anything?" the parents wrote to Weinstein. "We are all shocked by all of this. Distraught and disappointed. Not sleeping. We are horrified by what our child had to go through. How can this have happened?"

Weinstein, who's Jewish, dismissed the Academy's contention it couldn't substantiate the incident. "We've heard that for 15 years," he says. As for reporting the incident through chain of command or complaining, Weinstein says, "Cadets who have tried to stand up have been faced with retribution for doing that."

Weinstein says the upperclassman's comment is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, because the freshmen cadets must attend the noon meal and have no standing to reply to such commentary in any form. He argues the "burn in hell" comment is not protected speech under a Supreme Court ruling in 1974 that concluded military members don't share the same free-speech rights as civilians, due to the compelling government interest to maximize good order, morale, discipline and unit cohesion.

If the Christian cadets want to discuss the shooting in the context of their belief system, they have that right at the proper time, place and manner, which is not at a mandatory meal where others are subjected to their beliefs, Weinstein says.

Retired Brig. Gen. Martin France, who taught at the Academy for years and since his recent retirement has joined MRFF's advisory board says he wishes cadets felt more comfortable reporting incidents like this.

"What worries me the most is that despite the institutions and procedures and protocols that are available for cadets to lodge complaints about this sort of event, the troubling thing is that they didn't feel there was enough trust to do so," he says.

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