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Viewpoint: At the Air Force Academy, it's all about respect

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- In the last several days, you've read or heard or seen that the Air Force Academy has established an area for Earth-centered worship. Some of what you read or hear is sensationalized. I want to separate fact from fiction.

We made the decision to add a worship area for followers of Earth-centered religions based on religious rights outlined in the U.S. Constitution. The stone circle is located atop a hill overlooking the visitor center and is the latest addition to a collection of worship areas that already include Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist sacred spaces.

The United States Air Force remains neutral regarding religious beliefs and will not officially endorse nor disapprove any faith belief or absence of belief. The Earth-centered spirituality group that meets at the Air Force Academy falls within the definition of religion as defined in the United States Air Force Instruction 36-2706:

"A personal set or institutional system of attitudes, moral or ethical beliefs and practices held with the strength of traditional religious views, characterized by ardor and faith and generally evidenced through specific religious observances."

Earth-centered worship falls in this definition. Adding the Earth-centered worship circle was done in response to the request of both cadets and active duty personnel who asked that their religion be accommodated by the Air Force Academy chaplaincy. Therefore, it is our obligation, my obligation, to accommodate the group's religious requirements in a manner that is fair and consistent with other religious groups who are accommodated at the Academy.

You may have also heard that a cross was found at the site. The cross was made of railroad ties being left at the Earth worship site. This topic has also been extensively covered and not always accurately. Though we don't know the circumstances behind this incident, whether or not it was a malicious act or not, or even if Academy personnel were involved, we directed an inquiry that is ongoing. If we find that this is an intentional incident and identify those responsible, we'll take the appropriate action. But, we take this seriously and on the 27th of January I personally talked to my senior staff to reiterate the Academy's stance on respect and dignity. Since then, our dean of the faculty has addressed this with her faculty and staff, our commandant of cadets has talked to the entire cadet wing, our athletic director has talked with our coaches and physical fitness and administrative staffs, our prep school commander has talked with his staff and the 220 cadet candidates and the commander of our air base wing has done the same with his staff.

Our message is simple: we are taking this incident very seriously and conducting an inquiry. We absolutely do not stand for any type of destructive behavior or disrespect for human dignity.

The Air Force Academy is not the first Air Force institution to accommodate Earth-centered religions and we won't be the last. However, at the Air Force Academy the issue of religion is far greater than accommodation, it's about religious respect.

The mission of the United States Air Force Academy is to educate, train and inspire men and women to become officers of character to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation. We are dedicated to creating a learning and training environment where cadets can realize their highest potential regardless of their religious or other beliefs.

Cadets learn that to succeed as an Air Force officer we must be able to support and respect the people who we lead, serve with and fight alongside even if they do not share our personal beliefs.

Cadets learn that every servicemember is charged with defending freedom for all Americans and that includes the freedom to practice a religion of their choice or to not practice any religion at all.

Cadets learn that it is a great honor and privilege to wear the uniform of our armed services and serve to protect freedom, to include religious freedom.

On graduation day, the same day as they are awarded a commission as second lieutenants in the United States Air Force, they will take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

At the Air Force Academy we focus and will continue to focus on respect for human dignity to ensure all personnel respect the spirit and intent of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This is our common duty as members of the United States Air Force.
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