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Bobby Bowden Takes Sides in Air Force Academy Controversy

Florida State football coach and Southern Baptist Bobby Bowden weighed in on the controversy over alleged religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy, saying Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry is fighting the government over the role of religion on his team.

Last season DeBerry was asked to remove a banner from his locker room, which included the lines, “I am a Christian first and last” and “I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.”

Bowden, a longtime member of First Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Fla., brought the issue up Sunday night in remarks to the Southern Colorado Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“He [DeBerry] is fighting a heck of a battle because he happens to be a Christian, and he wants his boys to be saved,” Bowden was quoted as saying in the Gazette of Colorado Springs, Colo. “I want my boys to be saved.”

Bowden’s remarks, also reported by the Associated Press, came while a Pentagon task force investigated 55 reports of religious intolerance at the academy in Colorado Springs over the last five years. A preliminary report is due May 23.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State on April 29 asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other military leaders for a probe in a 14-page report alleging “egregious, systemic and legally actionable” First Amendment violations.

Among complaints was a report that an academy chaplain warned in a basic training session that students not reached by proselytizing would “burn in the fires of hell,” along with incidents of coerced prayer and attendance at worship services and harassment of non-Christian cadets.

Since then, the No. 2 chaplain at the academy said she was fired from an administrative post and was being transferred to Okinawa for blowing the whistle on a “systemic and pervasive” problem of religious proselytizing.

Capt. Melinda Morton, a Lutheran, said last Thursday in the New York Times that her boss, the academy’s chief chaplain, disagreed with a report she helped a Yale Divinity School professor write claiming that evangelical Christians wield too much influence at the school.

Morton also claimed that a religious tolerance program she helped develop was watered down by top military brass.

Morton said the Air Force’s chief chaplain, Maj. Gen. Charles C. Baldwin, screened the Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People, or RSVP, and commented, “In your presentation, Christians never win.”

Baldwin, a 1977 M.Div. graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who is endorsed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, told the Associated Press that Morton was not fired and her reassignment to an Air Force base in Japan was routine.

Baldwin acknowledged that he ordered removal of several video clips, including one from the Holocaust movie “Schindler’s List,” and that he believed Christians were too often portrayed as being at fault.

“In every scenario, where cadet met cadet in the hall,” he said in the New York Times, “every time it was the Christian who had to apologize and say, ‘I’m sorry, I wasn’t sensitive to your needs.’ I said, that’s not balanced, and the Christians will turn you off if every time they were the ones who made the mistake.”

Morton said in an interview with the New York Times that it was “patently untrue” that all the segments portrayed Christians in error. She said in most cases there was no religious identifier at all.

“I believe I was fired and I believe the other staff would say I was fired,” she said in a telephone interview with the AP. She said she received orders in March to transfer to Okinawa, and from there could be redeployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

“That is pretty plainly, in my mind, retribution,” Morton said in the New York Times. “That makes a big point on a staff. The point is, ‘We don’t regard Mel as trustworthy, and we humiliate her by firing her.’ However, in the whole scope of things, that’s pretty minor to what’s going on in the academy.”

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, said the decision to reassign Morton has signs of a cover-up.

“When intelligent people say silly things, it generally means that they do not want to tell you the truth,” Frank said in the May 17 Air Force Times. “I do not believe we have put in charge of the academy people incapable of making sense, so when they tell us things that are just silly, I think they are covering up.”

Baldwin, who was promoted to one of the three highest ranking chaplains in the U.S. military last June, issued a statement saying an individual’s religious beliefs, or the absence of beliefs in an established religion, should never be grounds for unlawful discrimination.

“The Air Force Chaplain Service is devoted to serving the religious needs of all airmen and their families,” Gen. Baldwin wrote. “We are committed to serving the one who is different with the same passion as the one from our own faith group.”

Baldwin said chaplains “come from many faith communities” and “are as diverse as the Air Force” but work together despite different beliefs.

“Clearly, there is the expectation that Air Force members will respect each other and accommodate one another in the practice of their faith,” he said. “There is no place in our Air Force for disrespectful names, slurs and jokes that make someone feel alienated from the team.”

Baldwin said the Chaplain Service introduced the RSVP program to reinforce that message. “We didn’t just recently begin to value religious freedom and individual rights,” he wrote. “This is a central part of our rich American heritage.”

In another development, the academy’s No. 2 officer, a born-again Christian named in complaints about proselytizing, was nominated to receive the second star of a major general.

Commandant Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida said in a 2003 e-mail message to cadets that God “has a plan for every one of us.” In another memo, he told cadets they “are accountable first to your God.”

“I am absolutely shocked that anyone would get a promotion in the middle of an investigation in which he is a central figure,” Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, told the Associated Press. “It casts doubt on the seriousness of this ongoing investigation.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Previous related stories:
Air Force Academy Cracks Down on Religious Harassment
Air Force Assigns Task Force to Assess Religious Climate at Academy