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AF Academy Critic's Spat Goes Online

By Catherine Tsai/
Associated Press
      DENVER — What started as an e-mail joke forwarded by an evangelical Christian leader to a Jewish former Air Force officer went public in an ugly way Friday as their bickering exchange was posted online.
    Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate suing to prohibit Air Force members from evangelizing, have already squared off on shows like "Hardball.'' They have had two or three phone calls both describe as cordial after a mutual friend introduced them.
    Now Weinstein is demanding an apology from Haggard after the public posting of a private e-mail exchange, an act Weinstein calls "despicable'' and akin to stabbing him in the back.
    "He set back Jewish and Christian relations to the Stone Age,'' Weinstein said from his home in Albuquerque during an interview in which he used expletives to describe Haggard.
    "Mikey tends to think he's got enemies where he doesn't,'' Haggard said from Colorado Springs.
    Cadets, watchdog groups and a former chaplain at the academy have alleged that religious intolerance is widespread at the school. The Air Force has issued guidelines discouraging public prayer at official functions and urging commanders to be sensitive about personal expressions of religious faith.
    Weinstein, whose two sons attended the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, filed a federal lawsuit earlier this year that seeks to prohibit Air Force members from evangelizing, proselytizing or trying "to involuntarily convert'' other members of the military.
    But all this started Wednesday, when Haggard forwarded an e-mail that he said he thought would make Weinstein laugh.
    "Mikey, I thought you would get a kick out of one of the jokes that are being circulated in the Christian community in response to the debate about additional government supervision of religious expression in the military,'' Haggard wrote.
    "`Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, our best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low-stress, non-addictive, gender-neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice,''' the e-mail continued.
    Weinstein's reply included the line, "a real shame we are at war with each other.''
    Haggard replied with what he described as a message of cooperation.
    "I just wanted you to know that I'm constantly involved in trying to protect Israel and other international Jewish interests, and find it difficult to defend Jewish causes around the world and, at the same time, have men like yourself trying to use increased government regulation to limit freedom here at home,'' he wrote.
    Weinstein, who founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, replied, "how DARE you try to assert that me and my supporters are making it MORE difficult for YOU to fight global antisemitism!!!!!''
    The entire e-mails were posted online at www.nonprophet.typepad.com, a blog unrelated to Haggard, and at www.tedhaggard.com.
    Weinstein told The Associated Press he would meet Haggard any time to debate in public.
    "This guy is too much of a coward to pick up the phone and call me. He can bring his blankie,'' Weinstein said. "I don't care.''
    Haggard said he went to the media with the e-mails after Weinstein responded with name calling.
    "This was a communication between a Christian leader and a man who filed a lawsuit. He's not a leader of anything except a mailing list,'' Haggard said. "I was trying to let him know Jewish and Christian leaders are working together on many issues, and he was frothing at the mouth.
    "I'm trying to extend an olive branch by sending him a lighthearted joke. It seemed like he was screaming.''
    Haggard said the two do have common ground, including support of the First Amendment, while Weinstein said he wasn't sure common ground existed after Haggard "scorched the earth'' by going public.
    Weinstein said, "Tell Ted Haggard I want to meet him today behind the junior high gym. I'm going to fight him.''