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AFA Religious Respect Program May Go Servicewide

An Air Force Academy program to teach cadets to respect the religious beliefs of comrades will soon go to all Air Force bases and schools, if academy chaplains have their way.

While a target date has not been set for the program's expansion, chaplains hope to transition the Religious Respect Training Program throughout the Air Force as soon as possible, chaplain Maj. Shawn Menchion said Wednesday at the conclusion of the academy's Religious Respect Conference.

"It may reach basic training for enlisted airmen before it reaches the officers," Menchion said.

The program was launched in 2010 at the recommendation of senior academy leaders after several years of religious-related controversies, Menchion said.

Initially, it was a one-hour training session on the First Amendment's clauses that relate to religious freedom, and was taught by academy chaplains to the class of 2014 at cadet basic training.

Last year, the academy and its partners, including the Anti-Defamation League, developed three additional lessons that will be taught at other times: one-hour lessons during sophomore and junior years, and a two-hour lesson during senior year, Menchion said.

The training teaches cadets "to become allies to other cadets when they witness respect infractions," he said. "We're giving them avenues to address those issues. We emphasize addressing those issues at the lowest level."

"This is something new," Menchion said of the program. "No other military members are getting this training except for the cadets."

The program was a major topic of discussion at the third biannual conference, held Tuesday and Wednesday at the academy.

Military and civilian attendees representing groups such as the ACLU, Buddhist Churches of America and Islamic Society of Colorado offered feedback on the program, which consists of lectures and discussions based on scenarios.

"Some have suggested that we continue to revise our scenarios to ensure their sensitivity and to ensure that there are no subjective or implied messages sent as we continue to develop the series," Menchion said.

David Oringderff, executive director of the Sacred Well Congregation, an international Wiccan fellowship, said he had high hopes for the program.

"Two years ago, the program was just starting out, and I didn't think it was going to succeed, at least not the way it did," he said. "After I left the conference, I felt that there'd be progress. But I was not prepared for the extent of the positive outcome. It's just incredible.

"I do a lot of interfaith work, and this program should be a model for interfaith programs all over the country."

Retired Air Force Col. Frank Clawson, director of military relations for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also said he was pleasantly surprised by the difference the program made in the academy's culture in two years.

"In the military, you really have to be a cohesive team," he said. "If you have people who are being segregated out because of their beliefs and not included in a team, you're going to be less effective.

"I'm encouraged. They're beginning to see results that are positive."

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