17 February 2006

Air Force softens rules on religious expression

The Stars and Stripes coverage provides a detailed look at this issue.

Speaking as a Unitarian Universalist who served in the Air Force for over 20 years, I don't think these new guidelines will protect non-Christian and non-religious airmen. As the article mentions, the problems in the past have been conservative and evangelical Christian coercion. It hasn't been a free expression of religion problem for military chaplains.

A brief excerpt is included below:
WASHINGTON - Air Force officials on Thursday released a second set of interim guidelines on religious expression after months of criticism from evangelical Christian leaders and members of Congress.

Those critics say the new changes don't go far enough, but civil libertarians say the document goes too far - shifting its focus from protecting airmen from religious persecution to protecting chaplains' rights.

The new interim rules - a one-page memo about a third the length of the first proposal, released in August - scale back specific instructions for commanders on ways to accommodate religious holidays, dietary needs and dress.

Also eliminated are specific warnings to chaplains to be sensitive to airmen of other faiths, in how they share their beliefs, and a reminder that their job includes care of airmen of all faiths.

But the new language is vague, and the Air Force would not provide authors of the guidelines for comment or clarification.

Instead, officials wrote a general warning not to chaplains but to "leaders at every level" to respect any faith or belief. New language affirming the rights of chaplains to "adhere to the tenets of their religious faiths" has also been added.

That line concerns Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in particular because the guidelines were originally drafted in response to allegations of religious intimidation at the Air Force Academy.

"This new version acts like the problem was with how chaplains are treated," Lynn said. "The problem is having all airmen fully respect the diversity of religions in the Air Force."
Here are some of the Air Force's newly revised interim guidelines on the free exercise of religion:
  • We will remain officially neutral regarding religious beliefs, neither officially endorsing nor disapproving any faith belief or absence of belief. We will accommodate free exercise of religion and other personal beliefs, as well as freedom of expression, except as must be limited by compelling military necessity ...
  • We will respect the rights of chaplains to adhere to the tenets of their religious faiths and they will not be required to participate in religious activities, including public prayer, inconsistent with their faiths ...
  • In official circumstances or when superior/subordinate relationships are involved, superiors need to be sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official, or have undue influence on their subordinates. Subject to these sensitivities, superiors enjoy the same free exercise rights as all other airmen ...
  • Public prayer should not imply government endorsement of religion and should not usually be a part of routine official business. Mutual respect and common sense should always be applied, including consideration of unusual circumstances and the needs of the command ...
  • Nothing in this guidance should be understood to limit the substance of voluntary discussions of religion, or the exercise of free speech, where it is reasonably clear that the discussions are personal, not official, and they can be reasonably free of the potential for, or appearance of, coercion ...
  • Nondenominational, inclusive prayer or a moment of silence may be appropriate for military ceremonies or events of special importance when its primary purpose is not the advancement of religious beliefs. Military chaplains are trained in these matters ...
Additional background info on this news story:
[Note: for those who like to track milestones, this is my 100th posting to my blog. Yippee!!]

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