Air Force Academy Backs Off Christmas Toy Program

Critic Says Religious Toy Drive Should Not Be Promoted By Commanders

The Air Force Academy cadet commanders have dropped a Christmas toy program after a critic accused commanders of religious intolerance.

Academy critic Mikey Weinstein said academy officials crossed the line by promoting Operation Christmas Child, a program sponsored by an evangelical Christian group that sends toys and toiletries to needy kids around the globe. The group also sends a Christian message with the gifts, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.

"This is arrogance beyond measure," Weinstein, an academy graduate who runs the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told the paper.

The academy has faced repeated allegations, including some earlier this year, that the school allows proselytizing on the government dime.

This time, Weinstein was upset that an announcement about the Christmas toy drive was made to the entire cadet wing at lunchtime in the large cadet dining hall and was followed up with an e-mail to all cadets.

"PLEASE, PLEASE CONSIDER SPENDING SOME OF YOUR VALUABLE TIME AND MONEY TO LOVE ON A KID AROUND THE WORLD!!," the e-mail said. The e-mail was sent by a cadet after it was approved by a cadet leader, the newspaper reported.

Weinstein said he’d be fine if the academy was backing a secular toy drive, or if the religious charity was promoted by chaplains rather than cadet leaders. But having leaders apparently backing the worldwide evangelism aims of Operation Christmas Child is inappropriate, he said.

The academy, which initially stood by the promotion, backed down Thursday night.

"We agree that it was inappropriate," said Lt. Col John Bryan, an academy spokesman.

"The cadets did not appropriately coordinate with the chaplain to run this program," said Meade Warthen, a spokesman for the academy.

The toy drive should not have been a commander's program and is now being handed over as a chaplain program, and the chaplain will work with the cadet chapel corps, Warthen said.

The academy’s chaplains can legally take part and recruit support for religious endeavors.

Academy commandant Brig. Gen. Richard Clark apologized to Weinstein on Thursday and academy officials sent an email to cadets retracting an earlier request for their help with the program.

The charity doesn't hide its purpose. On its website, Samaritan's Purse, which runs the program, said, "For over 40 years, Samaritan's Purse has done our utmost to follow Christ's command by going to the aid of the world's poor, sick, and suffering. We are an effective means of reaching hurting people in countries around the world with food, medicine, and other assistance in the Name of Jesus Christ. This, in turn, earns us a hearing for the Gospel, the Good News of eternal life through Jesus Christ."

Three years ago, a Colorado Springs School District 11 school dropped a project to support Operation Christmas Child after administrators learned of its evangelical goals, according to the newspaper.

Part of a cadet's education is to provide them with opportunity to lead, and that includes volunteering in the community, Warthem said.

Last year, cadets were involved in 1,600 projects, dedicating more than 31,000 hours of service to programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, flood relief in South Dakota, Habitat for Humanity, and Project Cure, Warthem said.

The Air Force Academy has approximately 4,200 cadets.

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