After a non-religious West Point cadet left the academy because of what he claimed was religious bigotry, CNN contributor Roland Martin compared it to racism suffered by one of West Point's first black cadet graduates.
Cadet Lt. Blake Page first aired his grievances to The Huffington Post and he told CNN's Starting Point that what he found "most offensive" at West Point was "condescension and disrespect from other people."
"General Benjamin Davis Jr. was the first black to finish from West Point in the 20th Century. He went through an entire year where no one even spoke to him because he was black. Do you believe that you're giving in to them by leaving?" Martin asked Page, immediately drawing a parallel between his case and the racism suffered by General Davis.
"What if you stayed? What if you said, no matter what you do to me, I am going to win and beat you at this battle? Why leave?" he pressed.
Mikey Weinstein – who's made offensive remarks in the past about Christianity – joined Page on the show, representing the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. He described his attempts to prevent West Point from having "raging Islamophobe" retired Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin – of the Family Research Council – speak at its national prayer breakfast.
While Page's grievances may or may not have been real, Roland Martin promptly raised the stakes by comparing West Point's treatment of non-religious cadets to racism.
A transcript of the segment, which aired on December 6 on Starting Point at 7:36 a.m. EST, is as follows:
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: This is an interesting story. A young man who's just five months away from graduating West Point, he's decided that he is going to abandon his degree in a very public way. 24-year-old cadet Blake Page, he wrote a blog post on The Huffington Post saying he wanted out because he's being discriminated against, he's claiming, for being non-religious. In his resignation letter to the school, he writes this, "I do not wish to be in any way associated with an institution which willfully disregards the Constitution of the United States of America by enforcing policies which run counter to the same."
The U.S. Military Academy declined to give us a statement. They did, though, confirm that Page's resignation has been approved and he's being honorably discharged. So joining us this morning is Blake Page, now an out-processing cadet from West Point. Michael Winestein is with the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. They're in Albuquerque. Nice to talk to you both.
Blake, I'm going to start with you, if I can. Did you know before you attended West Point, that this was an institution that involves going to chapel, praying over meals. Did you have an – there was a bit, I think it's fair, of a religious culture around the West Point.
Cadet Lt. BLAKE PAGE, out-processing cadet, West Point: Sure. I knew there was a religious culture, but being a cadet does not involve going to chapel, it doesn't involve praying over meals, under normal circumstances. Going to chapel is often encouraged in illegal ways here and throughout the military at large. But prayer over meals is explicitly required at certain times. Those things, though – those things weren't as big of a deal to me as a lot of the other problems that have arose --
O'BRIEN: So walk me through. You spelled it out in your letter to The Huffington Post, religious bigotry. So tick off for me some of the things that you found most offensive.
PAGE: Right. Well, things that have happened to me personally have just been conversational and really just condescension and disrespect from other people. And I can give my personal stories all day long, but so far, it seems that my greatest criticism comes from people saying that they can't believe what I'm saying.
We have over 150 clients here and the staff, faculty, and cadets at West Point of the MRFF who also agree that this is a problem. And there are thousands throughout the military who also agree that this is a problem. So if anybody wants to just pretend that this sort of harassment doesn't exist, they're really missing it. I've had conversations with –
O'BRIEN: Forgive me for interrupting you, you said the MRFF, and I just want people to be aware that's the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which Mr. Winestein is the founder and president. So we'll turn to him for a moment. Is it true that this is a -- how big of a problem is this? And how many complaints do you get? This seems to be a real rarity, a high-profile departure, just months before graduation.
MICHAEL "MIKEY" WEINSTEIN, founder and president, Military Religious Freedom Foundation: Soledad, it's a terrible problem. Our foundation, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, currently represents 30,512 active duty United States Marines, sailors, soldiers, airmen, and cadets and midshipmen at my alma mater, the Air Force Academy, West Point, and Annapolis. 96 percent of them are actually practicing Christians themselves, being told that they're not Christian enough. At West Point, as Blake says, we have 151 clients, 119 of whom are also Christians. But this year, this is very typical for West Point.
Earlier this year, our foundation had to lead the way with other organizations to stop West Point from inviting the raging Islamophobe, retired Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin, from speaking at their national prayer breakfast. We had to go public with that. This man is a raging fundamentalist Christian, Islamophobe, you know, disgraced. He was – West Point, did, at the last minute, disinvite him. A few months later, thanks to other folks at West Point, we found out that West Point had a four-year longitudinal study that was assessed with the class of 2013 this time.
It came out in August, I think it was, Blake, where they were actually asking questions about leadership, and they were testing, you know, asking questions about faith and religion, which is fine to do, but not in this country, because Clause 3, Article 6 of our constitution specifically forbids religious testing. So this is an epidemic situation –
O'BRIEN: So let me get back to Blake for a moment if I can. I think Roland wanted to jump in with a question to him.
ROLAND MARTIN: General Benjamin Davis Jr. was the first black to finish from West Point in the 20th Century. He went through an entire year where no one even spoke to him because he was black. Do you believe that you're giving in to them by leaving? What if you stayed? What if you said, no matter what you do to me, I am going to win and beat you at this battle? Why leave?
PAGE: Yeah, I get that question a lot. I didn't come to West Point to get a West Point degree. I couldn't care less about graduating from West Point. What I wanted to do was become an officer, all right? So that's what was important to me and that was what I was working towards. And I'm not being beaten. Going through the channels here has not been difficult for me, classes haven't been difficult. I've generally had a fair amount of success with my time as a cadet, and anybody who thinks that I'm just giving up and walking away is really missing the point.
I found out earlier this semester that I would not be able to commission, but I was told that I would be allowed to graduate if I decided that I wanted to. When I first found out that I wasn't going to commission, I asked if I could go ahead and leave so that I wouldn't waste any more taxpayer dollars. But I was encouraged by people here to stay, and I ended up staying for a few months, but I realized that there was a problem here and I was about to be out of the system. I wasn't going to be inside the ranks of the Army any more, and so I wouldn't have an opportunity to affect the change that I wanted to affect as a member of the chain of command or as a high-ranking officer later on. So I made the decision to do what I could to try and get attention to an issue that I think needs a lot of attention.
O'BRIEN: You certainly have with your post on The Huffington Post. It's what all people are talking about. Cadet Blake Page joining us, and also Michael Weinstein as well with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Nice to talk to both of you gentleman. We appreciate your time this morning. Got to take a short break.