Six months short of graduation, West Point cadet Blake Page resigned over what he says is a culture that promotes prayer and religion and harasses nonreligious cadets at one of the country's most prestigious military academies.
Within the next few days, his life in the military will be over and he'll be headed to Minnesota amid a firestorm about the meaning of God and country and the separation of church and state.
At West Point, Page said, he witnessed cadets being rewarded for participating in religious activities, saw requirements for mandatory prayer, and other efforts to reward, encourage and require sectarian religious participation. After deciding to leave West Point, he wanted to make a statement to his chain of command, writing a scathing letter criticizing academy leadership for its "blatant religious bigotry."
But he was encouraged to go even further by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which advocates for the separation of church and state in the military. Page's subsequent commentary, "Why I Don't Want to Be a West Point Graduate," was published earlier this week in the Huffington Post and has exploded an online debate. In his post, Page denounced as "criminals" leaders in the military who he said infuse fundamentalist Christian proselytizing into all aspects of life at West Point.
"I've had challenges at West Point, but there was nothing I couldn't take on," he said in a phone interview. "I realized either way it would be worth it in the end. There are so many other people who have problems. I can deal with it."
A spokesman for West Point, Francis DeMaro, said Page's claim that prayer was mandatory is not true.
"As officers, cadets will be responsible for soldiers who represent America's great diversity in faith and ethnic background," he said in a statement. "The academy provides cadets the opportunity to foster an understanding regarding the fundamental dignity and worth of all."
Page, 24, said his beliefs on religion were not a factor during his prior service in the Army, where commanders encouraged him to apply to West Point and to continue a military career as an officer.
Page did not hide his feelings at West Point, where he became president of the West Point Secular Student Alliance, which Page said was refused recognition by the academy for two years. He filed an Equal Opportunity complaint against the academy, which is still under investigation.
Page was scheduled to graduate in May. Coming in the 11th hour of his studies, his departure was heralded as heroic by the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. His decision to resign came after he was notified he would not be commissioned in the Army because of a medical issue related to clinical depression.
At the time he announced he would be leaving school, Page feared West Point could have demanded that it recoup several hundred thousand dollars in tuition or require him to return to the Army as an enlisted soldier. He found out recently that West Point will not pursue the costs and he will receive an honorable discharge.
"It really is an incredible act of sacrifice -- not against Christianity or for atheists -- it's a sacrifice for the Constitution which allows everyone to celebrate their faith, or no faith," said Military Religious Freedom Foundation founder and Air Force Academy graduate Mikey Weinstein of Page's decision to resign so close to graduation. The group, which says it represents 30,500 members, is at the forefront of lobbying against what it describes as the "fanatical religiosity, the Christian version of the Taliban" in the American military and service academies.
West Point's DeMaro pointed to the Secular Student Alliance as evidence that the academy does not discriminate against cadets who do not have religious beliefs. He said Page was meeting academic standards and was not undergoing any disciplinary actions. He declined to discuss specifics of Page's other claims, citing the continuing investigation.
Finishing the paperwork to end his military career, Page, who graduated from high school in Georgia, will be traveling to Minnesota by the weekend to begin a new life. His grandparents have a home in Wright County and Page will be living with them for the foreseeable future. His grandmother is sick and he said he wants to spend time caring for her. He also plans on continuing to work on the issue of separation of church and state and is considering a degree in public administration, possibly transferring credits to the University of Minnesota or the University of Georgia.
He does not fear reprisals for his position, even though West Point Facebook pages have been rife with animosity and threats in the past couple of days. Still, he said he never felt physically threatened or in danger during training or in drills because of his beliefs. After he taped his online post on his door at West Point, he said, one cadet angrily confronted him. But Page said he told the cadet he wasn't opposing her religious beliefs, only that he was entitled to his own.
"If you can stop them from yelling at you," he said, "they can at least understand your point of view."
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434