Political Correction

Air Force Academy Is Latest To Undermine A Shoddy "Report" By Sen. Coburn

December 22, 2011 2:32 pm ET - by Jamison Foser

Sen. Tom Coburn

That was fast.

Yesterday, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) released his "2011 Wastebook" — the latest in a line of poorly researched "reports" that take the "that sounds funny!" approach to identifying often-trivial amounts of supposedly wasteful government spending, some of which Coburn admits might not even be wasteful. Similar previous reports from Coburn have come under fire for misrepresenting the projects they criticize, in addition to failing to make any real effort to assess the merits of the spending in question. Coburn has also been repeatedly criticized for failing to seek input from the targets of his attacks before leaping to conclusions about their "wasteful" spending. 

With the ink on Coburn's latest report barely dry, one target of his ridicule has already pointed out that the report misrepresents its spending: The United States Air Force Academy.

The 79th entry on Coburn's list of "unnecessary, duplicative, or just plain stupid projects" is the $51,474 the senator summarizes as "Air Force Academy Builds 'Stonehenge-like Worship Center.'" Coburn's six-sentence description of the facility references five endnotes, creating the impression of scholarly rigor. But other than one endnote citing the Congressional Research Service for the cost of the facility, every citation is to a single Los Angeles Times article. With only one article to summarize, you might assume Coburn was at least able to do so accurately. Not so. Coburn writes:

The worship center is "for the handful of current or future cadets whose religions fall under the broad category of 'Earth-based,'" which includes Wiccans, druids and pagans. Three students out of 4,300 students self-reported as currently having an "earth-based" religion.

In fact, the Los Angeles Times article Coburn cites reported that three cadets identified themselves as pagans, not as "having an 'earth-based' religion." The article also made clear that earth-based religions include "followers of Native American faiths," which Coburn excluded from his description.

Had Coburn taken the time to read more than a single newspaper article about the center, he might've found a February 3, 2010 statement from Air Force Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike C. Gould that makes clear the center was built to accommodate the needs not only of cadets but of active-duty personnel as well:

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.

He'd also have found that the worship center was built following alleged incidents of religious intolerance:

The presence of diverse worship areas reflects a sea change from five years ago, when reports surfaced alleging religious intolerance at the Academy. Sergeant Longcrier became Pagan shortly after arriving at the Academy in 2006 and said he believes the climate has improved dramatically. [...]

A worship circle at Fort Hood, Texas, became a flashpoint for discussions about Paganism in the U.S. military after it was established by the Sacred Well Congregation in 1999. 

The Fort Hood Open Circle was vandalized on four separate occasions from 1999 to 2000, including an incident Oct. 27, 2000, in which the half-ton limestone altar was destroyed outright.

Finally, had Coburn contacted the Air Force Academy before mocking its efforts to accommodate a diverse array of faiths, he would have learned that the worship space is not merely for "a handful of current or future cadets" who practice Earth-based religions, as Coburn suggests, but is in fact available to cadets of all faiths. In reporting on Coburn's allegation of waste, the Colorado Springs Gazette did what the Oklahoma senator didn't bother to do: It got a statement from the Air Force Academy.

The academy said the chapel was built in a effort to ensure that all religious beliefs are accomodated.

"Technically, there is no designated worship space for the Earth-Centered Spirituality, atheist or humanist cadets similar to the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist Cadet Faith Communities," the academy wrote in a statement. "The Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle, an outdoor worship space, is available to all cadet faith communities to use with the earth-centered spirituality cadets having scheduling priority."

So the Air Force Academy spent $51,474 — or 0.000001 percent of the federal budget — building a worship center available to all faith communities, at the request of both cadets and active-duty personnel, following incidents of vandalism and alleged religious discrimination. How much did Tom Coburn spend producing a shoddy and frivolous report on government "waste" that, by his own admission, might mistakenly classify useful projects as waste?

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