8.30.2005

'Shouldn't' Is Not 'Don't' & 'Urge' Is Not 'Prohibit' - Air Force Guidelines Too Little, Too Late, Too Evangelical

Air Force Religion Guidelines Discourage Public Prayer But Don't Ban It

from The Associated Press and The Washington Post

DENVER - The Air Force released new guidelines for religious tolerance Monday that discourage public prayer at official functions and urge commanders to be "sensitive" about personal expressions of religious faith.

"At a time when many nations are torn apart by religious strife, we must understand that our ability to stand together as Americans and as airmen - those who represent many religions, shoulder-to-shoulder with those who claim no religion - is part of our heritage, and our strength," the guidelines said.

The document directs chaplains to "respect the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs."

The guidelines, which apply to the entire Air Force, were drawn up after allegations that evangelical Christians wield so much influence at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment have become pervasive.

Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 Air Force Academy graduate, former Reagan White House official, and persistent critic of the school's handling of religion, criticized the new guidelines, saying they fail to control evangelical zealots. He said the guidelines are "dead on arrival" and said he is contemplating a lawsuit to block them.

"The Air Force's official policy remains that the Air Force reserves the right to evangelize anyone in the Air Force that it determines to be unchurched," Weinstein said in an interview from his home in Albuquerque, N.M.

Weinstein's complaints over the past 18 months about religious intolerance led to a Pentagon investigation in June that found "a lack of awareness over where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs" and concluded that some students and staff at the school have the perception that the academy favors evangelical Christians and is intolerant of those who do not share their faith.

A team of observers from Yale Divinity School criticized one of the academy's ministers for urging Protestant cadets to tell their classmates that anyone who is "not born-again will burn in the fires of hell."

"Could there possibly be a worse time for this fundamentalist Christianity to be pushed in our military, when we're in a war and the people we are fighting are recruiting their members by saying we're Christian crusaders?" asked Weinstein.

Among other incidents, the academy commandant had urged cadets to use the "J for Jesus" hand signal with the thumb and index finger, the head football coach had told players that he expected to see them in church, and Jewish cadets had experienced anti-Semitic slurs after students were urged to see the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ.

The new guidelines do not ban public prayer outright and say short, nonsectarian prayers may be included in special ceremonies or events, but only to lend a sense of solemnity and not to promote specific beliefs.

Nor do they bar personal discussions of religion, including discussions between commanders and subordinates. They caution Air Force members "to be sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official expressions."

The Rev. MeLinda S. Morton, a Lutheran minister who resigned in June as an Air Force chaplain after criticizing the religious atmosphere at the Air Force Academy, said there has been a palpable rise in evangelical fervor not just among chaplains but also among the officer corps in general since she joined the military in 1982, originally as a launch officer in a nuclear missile silo.

"When we were missile officers, I would never, ever have engaged in conversations with subordinates aligning my power and position as an officer with my views on faith matters," she said. Today, "I've heard of people being made incredibly uncomfortable by certain wing commanders who engage in sectarian devotions at staff meetings."

The guidelines state that members of the Air Force "will not officially endorse or establish religion, either one specific religion, or the idea of religion over non-religion."

They also say that "abuse or disrespect" of Air Force members based on their religious beliefs, or lack of such beliefs, is unacceptable.

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