Air Force Academy Creates ‘Worship Space’ for 'Earth-Centered Community’

June 17, 2011 - 11:00 AM

Cadet Chapel, U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Cadet Chapel, U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo., July 4, 2009 (Photo: USAF)

(CNSNews.com) - The United States Air Force Academy has created a “worship space” on campus for the “Earth-Centered Community,” which, according to the Air Force, includes among other denominations the Wiccans, Druids, Heathens and Pagans.

Col. Robert Bruno, chaplain at the Air Force Academy, told CNSNews.com that the academy created the space in response to a request from a few service members and cadets who belong to the Earth-Centered Community.

“In the Summer of 2009, a small group of Earth Centered Airmen and cadets requested the support of the Chaplain Corps at USAFA to accommodate their religious requirements,” Bruno said in an e-mail to CNSNews.com.

"Our constitutional options are to either directly provide that support or facilitate it,” said Bruno. “Since none of the chaplains represents any of the Earth Centered traditions, direct support was not an option.  Therefore, we facilitated it through an outside endorsing agency whose staff are subject matter experts in Earth Centered traditions.” 

“Earth-Centered” includes “Wiccan, Druid, Heathen, Pagan, and Native Americans to name just a few,” he said, adding that: “They represent a tiny fraction of the demography of USAFA, the AF, the DOD and America.”

The Earth Centered worship space, which opened in May, is not located in the Academy’s famous Cadet Chapel, but is “an outdoor worship space officially named the Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle.”

“There are at least three such worship spaces at a number of other military installations in the U.S. and overseas,” Bruno said.

The chaplain said the academy, which is located in Colorado Springs, Colo., was required to accommodate the religions, not out of political correctness, but because of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

“There is what I call a creative tension between those two components of that amendment that is not always easy to negotiate,” Bruno said. “(T)he DOD is prohibited from sanctioning any religion as official or unofficial, acceptable or unacceptable, entitled or not entitled, to the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

“The military command authority is required to lean forward to accommodate any request for religious accommodation unless the practice of that religion interferes with mission accomplishment, military readiness, unit cohesion, standards and discipline per Department of Defense Instruction 1300.17, Section 4 (Policy), dated 10 Feb 2009. Such an assessment to not accommodate cannot be made on a theoretical or hypothetical basis.”

Here is the full text of Col. Bruno’s letter:

“Dear Patrick:

“Earlier today I received your inquiry via the Air Force Academy Office of Public Affairs concerning the Earth Centered Spirituality group.  I welcome such inquiries and hope to provide you an answer that addresses your concerns.

“Within the DOD context, the term "Protestant" is an umbrella term that includes a span of Christian faith traditions from the very low liturgical Four Square Gospel to the very high liturgical Episcopalian.  Similarly, Earth Centered is an umbrella term that covers a number of believe systems such as Wiccan, Druid, Heathen, Pagan, and Native Americans to name just a few.  They represent a tiny fraction of the demography of USAFA, the AF, the DOD and America.

“The issue you raise is one of religious accommodation and is based, not on political correctness, but on the First Amendment of the US Constitution.  Succinctly, it tells us that our government, here read US Air Force, may not impede the free exercise of religion or officially establish any religion as the religion of the government.  There is what I call a creative tension between those two components of that amendment that is not always easy to negotiate.  To answer your question, the DOD is prohibited from sanctioning any religion as official or unofficial, acceptable or unacceptable, entitled or not entitled, to the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.  The military command authority is required to lean forward to accommodate any request for religious accommodation unless the practice of that religion interferes with mission accomplishment, military readiness, unit cohesion, standards and discipline per Department of Defense Instruction 1300.17, Section 4 (Policy), dated 10 Feb 2009. Such an assessment to not accommodate cannot be made on a theoretical or hypothetical basis.

“In the Summer of 2009, a small group of Earth Centered Airmen and cadets requested the support of the Chaplain Corps at USAFA to accommodate their religious requirements.  Our constitutional options are to either directly provide that support or facilitate it.  Since none of the chaplains represents any of the Earth Centered traditions, direct support was not an option.  Therefore, we facilitated it through an outside endorsing agency whose staff are subject matter experts in Earth Centered traditions.  The eventual outcome of this endeavor was the May 2011 dedication of an outdoor worship space officially named the Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle.  For your information, there are at least three such worship spaces at a number of other military installations in the US and overseas.

“Because they are not a part of the more conventional or mainline faith traditions such as Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox, Muslim, etc., it is often presumed that any such accommodation of the Earth Centered community is made on the basis of being avant garde or politically correct.  But the First Amendment does not distinguish between mainline and non-mainline religions, nor does it give the government the authority to make those distinctions.  Nor does it set a numerical threshold.  As such, when this requirement was presented to us, both the Superintendent and I were obliged by the Constitutional imperative and DODI 1300.17 to assess the situation and accommodate if at all possible. That is what we did.

“At USAFA, regardless of whether the issue is one of gender, race, ethnicity or religion, the protocol in each case is one of respect, civility and inclusion. With the repeal of Don't Ask-Don't Tell, sexual preference will be added to that list. Where there is disagreement of theology, political ideology, philosophy or whatever (and we welcome a robust and intellectually honest debate on any of them), the protocol is that we agree to disagree agreeably. It's not political correctness. It is about respecting the fundamental dignity of each citizen/Airman and their Constitutional freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, in or out of uniform.

“I hope this satisfactorily answers your inquiry. My contact information is contained within my signature block below.  Please feel free to rebut. I welcome the discussion.

“Respectfully,

ROBERT BRUNO

Chaplain, Colonel, USAF

US Air Force Academy Chaplain

USAF Academy, CO  80840-8280”