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Washington Watch

by James D. Besser

June 2, 2005 | 8:00 pm

Air Force Fight Moves to the Hill

The issue of religious coercion at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is starting to reverberate on Capitol Hill -- with what one Jewish legislator said are ugly overtones.

And a chaplain who was fired for raising the issue of proselytization at the service academy said this week that a "disappointing" internal investigation by the Air Force demands strong congressional action.

In an interview, an angry Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said some of his congressional colleagues "just don't get it. What I have learned is that the problems may not be confined to the Air Force Academy; the problem is here, in the halls of Congress."

Last week, Israel introduced an amendment to a defense authorization bill expressing support for personal religious expression at the Air Force Academy, and demanded "corrective action reports" on "coercive proselytizing, intolerance and intimidation" at the school, he said.

Israel accused fellow lawmakers of "a jarring insensitivity to our concerns."

Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) denied the existence of a problem at the Air Force Academy and warned that Rep. Israel's amendment "would bring the ACLU into the United States military, it would bring the silly thinking of several of our judicial systems."

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) said the only problem at the controversy-plagued school is one of "political correctness."

"Their response, essentially, was that the problem wasn't those doing the coercing, but the victims who are complaining," Israel said. "My colleagues seem to feel that the officers at the Air Force Academy who are pressuring subordinate cadets to adopt one religious view over another are simply pursuing their own personal religious freedom."

Israel's amendment, stripped of language that included "coercion" and "proselytization," was rejected by the Rules Committee.

Israel accused the Republican leadership of "continuing to cater to right-wing extremists; any attempt to insist on moderation and pluralism and tolerance is struck down."

Capt. Melinda Morton, the assistant chaplain at the school who was fired for raising the issues of religious intolerance and anti-Semitism, cast the problem in nonpartisan terms.

"Congressional oversight is very important," she said. "The Air Force Academy is a direct reporting unit; we report to Congress, and the men and women who come here are appointed directly by congressmen and senators. So there's a direct responsibility."

She charged that an Air Force investigation into claims of religious intolerance has been superficial, at best. Despite her central role in the controversy "they didn't even speak to me until noon on the last day they were to complete their report."

Israel said that Jewish groups are not doing enough on the issue of religious coercion at the service academies.

"Any Jewish group that sat in on the Armed Services Committee last week would have realized that the problem is much more serious than they originally thought," the lawmaker said. "I'm hoping the Jewish community -- and the Catholic and Protestant communities -- rise to this challenge." -- James D. Besser, Washington Correspondent

Big Church-State Battle Looming

Jewish groups are gearing up for what one activist called "the single-biggest faith-based vote by Congress ever" as Congress gets set to reauthorize the popular Head Start program.

The issue: Congressional Republicans, with strong White House backing, have announced plans to introduce an amendment that would explicitly allow faith-based groups that get federal Head Start money to discriminate in hiring employees.

Those provisions are necessary, supporters say, to allow churches and synagogues that participate in the program to maintain their religious character.

Orthodox Jewish groups agree.

"We call it religious freedom," said Nathan Diament, Washington director for the Orthodox Union, which will support the expected amendment.

But church-state groups insist that it would open the door to widespread job discrimination using taxpayer dollars.

"We are arguing that Head Start is unique because of its pervasive nature, with Head Start programs in almost every congressional district," said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. "And it's a core civil rights and anti-poverty program; the idea of allowing discrimination in such a program is odious."

Lieberman said it will be "the first time the House will vote to actually repeal an existing civil rights law in a floor vote," a precedent that alarms civil rights groups.

It will also turn the Head Start reauthorization, one of few genuinely bipartisan bills in congress, into a partisan hot potato.

The amendment will be introduced on the floor by Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, which recently approved the Head Start reauthorization by a 48-0 vote.

Even opponents predict relatively easy passage in the House, but the measure could get slowed in the Senate, where the administration's faith-based agenda has faced tougher going. -- JB

 

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