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Chaplain is dismissed from U.S. Air Force Academy

Editorial note: MeLinda Morton resigned June 21 from the military. See next month's edition of www.thelutheran.org for an update.

Chaplain MeLinda Morton, an ELCA pastor, was dismissed May 4 from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and reassigned to a chaplaincy position in Okinawa, Japan. She was told in December she could expect to continue at the academy for at least another year. Then in March she was told she would be transferred at the end of July.


Morton, 48, believes she was dismissed for not complying with requests from Michael Whittington, the academy’s chief chaplain, that she deny details of what happened at a worship service last summer for new cadets.

Academy spokesperson Lt. Col. Laurent Fox told The Washington Post that Morton’s early dismissal was “for reasons of continuity” since her superior was also scheduled to leave soon.

But two things about her dismissal struck Morton as odd: She had never heard of a position being transferred without a transition period, and Whittington had just asked her to make “disingenuous statements” to the media about a 2004 report she co-authored with Kristin Leslie, a professor at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Conn.

The report, which focused on the academy’s pastoral care and counseling, mentioned instances of religious intolerance. Morton said the report sat on her superior’s desk for 10 months, with no action, until the Colorado Gazette (Colorado Springs) obtained a copy and ran a story.

“My superior said disingenuous statements about the report to the public affairs office,” Morton said. “[He said] he polled all the chaplains, and they told him the events didn’t occur. His insistence to me that I support those disingenuous statements ... appeared inappropriate in the extreme.

“Had I been persuaded that issues of constitutionality and pastoral care were unimportant, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Leslie, a United Methodist pastor, said the academy invited the Yale observers to shadow the chaplains for one week. That invitation came in response to a Department of Defense survey that found from 1996 to 2002 nearly one in five female cadets were sexually assaulted while at the academy.

The Yale report says a chaplain urged cadets to convert those who hadn’t attended the academy worship service, saying “those not born again will burn in the fires of hell.” The team also noted that some cadets reported harassment of those who aren’t conservative evangelical Christians and special treatment for those who are. Non-evangelical cadets said upper-class cadets made those who didn’t attend chapel march in “heathen flights.”

At presstime, a Pentagon task force was looking into more than 50 complaints of religious intolerance in the last few years, including that of a Jewish cadet who was reportedly told the Holocaust was revenge for Jesus’ death and claims that professors urged students to convert to Christianity.

A new phenomenon

“We weren’t looking for religious intolerance,” Leslie said. “But without even looking for it, we found it. ... Historically the armed services have done a pretty good job with ministry in a pluralistic environment.... This is a new phenomenon.”

Morton said: “In the 1980s large conservative evangelical institutions grew up around the academy and made [Colorado Springs] their home. Faculty members who are members of those organizations are encouraged to use their position and power to promulgate conservative evangelical ideology.”

The academy, she added, intentionally lifts up character development and spirituality, but “the problem is that we’ve put forward a specific kind of spirituality that is acceptable. This institution clearly and repetitively uses the power of staff members and leadership to say to the cadets that the model and paradigm that will most clearly form your development is conservative evangelicalism.

“We’re working with students who’ve been removed from home, in an environment where we’re trying to build teamwork. And you’re laying on these kids a guilt-trip obligation that they need to go proselytize if they want to be part of the team. We didn’t feel that was helpful in the environment or that it was pastoral care.”

A lack of clarity?

Robert Tuttle, a member of Christ Lutheran Church, Washington D.C., who teaches law at George Washington University, said, “The Air Force Academy may have lost clarity [about the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution]. Our ordinary rule is that the government can’t sponsor religious experience.

“In the military, prisons and some other institutional settings ... the government has a lot of control over individuals, [disrupting] their ability to practice religion freely.” The government funds chaplaincies to facilitate free exercise of religion in such situations, he added.

For religious freedom to occur, federal chaplains must tread a careful line of “providing pastoral care rather than using this as a way to [proselytize],” Tuttle said.

Tuttle worries about further infringement. “In rules that started to come out last summer, the Bush administration began to say that the ordinary [proselytizing] restrictions don’t apply to those under significant control by the government—those in prisons, the military, long-term care facilities, etc.,” he said. “This raises real concerns about government coercion through religion.”

Ivan Ives, interim head of the ELCA Federal Chaplaincies Office, Washington, D.C., said that if chaplains “become aware of conditions or circumstances that may inhibit [religious freedom], it’s [our] responsibility to bring these to the commander’s attention, along with recommendations.

“The military much prefers that this be handled within the academy [not the media]. ... Basically this is about [Morton] doing a good job.”

Such a good job that ELCA member and U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., circulated a letter asking others in Congress to join her in requesting a public investigation of possible religious intolerance at the academy. “Religious freedom is one of the bedrock principles for which the U.S. stands and which the U.S. Air Force is meant to defend,” she wrote.


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