Facebook Twitter

Air Force creates religion guidelines

Respect for all faiths is urged following complaints

SHARE Air Force creates religion guidelines

The Air Force issued interim religious guidelines Monday, stressing that commanders and airmen will respect one another's religious and nonreligious beliefs and that the Air Force will not endorse any religion.

The Air Force developed the service-wide guidelines at the request of a task force that visited the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo., in May amid claims that evangelical Christians are favored over non-Christians. In a June report, the task force said it found perceptions of religious intolerance but no overt religious discrimination.

The three-page guidelines released Monday define constitutional protections for free exercise of religion, the role of Air Force chaplains, supervisor-subordinate relationships, proper use of e-mail and accommodation of major religious holidays or services.

"Here, we make it explicit that we will support the free exercise of religion because it is a constitutional right, but we will never judge anyone based on whether he or she is religious," said Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, the Air Force's special assistant for values and vision.

The interim guidelines are expected to become official Air Force instruction in December. A training program will be developed by Nov. 1, the same date for the academy to submit Phase II of its Respecting the Spiritual Values of All People training, given to 8,700 cadets and faculty and staff members for the first time this spring.

The guidelines allow nonsectarian prayer during "significant events" such as change of command ceremonies, graduations, welcome home and deployment ceremonies, but they prohibit prayer during routine meetings, classes and sports events or practices.

Resnicoff said that prayers would be allowed "so long as it is obvious to a reasonable person that that prayer is not meant to change the event into some religious event, but it is to add a heightened sense of solemnity or importance."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that issued a blistering report of the academy in April, said the prayer guideline is a "vague standard."

"Some people even doubt whether nonsectarian prayer really exists . . . That's something we're going to need to watch," said Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United.

Overall, Boston said, the guidelines are a "significant first step. In the main, they look to be pretty good. The guidelines make it clear that coercive forms of proselytizing by officers are not appropriate."

The Air Force's inspector general is still investigating whether Brig Gen. Johnny Weida, the academy's commandant of cadets, used inappropriate religious hand signals at a freshmen retreat in September 2003.

Johnny Whitaker, spokesman for the academy, said there are "no particular surprises" in the interim guidelines.

"We're already doing most of it, and this codifies it and brings it all together," he said.

Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 Air Force Academy graduate and outspoken critic of the academy's handling of religious-tolerance issues, said the guidelines are "obfuscated doublespeak" because the Air Force says one thing but does not condemn leaders who violate the Constitution.