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After Pressure, U.S. Air Force Unveils New Guidelines on Religion

August 31, 2005
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U.S. Air Force officials are hoping new guidelines for religious tolerance will end an atmosphere some soldiers say is unwelcoming to religious minorities. But while some are calling the new regulations a good first step, others remain concerned that little will change at academies and Air Force bases around the country.

The guidelines, sent Monday from the Pentagon, say commanders should try to comply with religious accommodations for all airmen and women, and that senior airmen and women need to be sensitive to the fact that personal expressions of faith might be viewed as official statements.

The new regulations come amid reports from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., that religious minorities felt pressure to prioritize their military duties over religious observance, and that they felt they were in an overtly Christian atmosphere.

Chaplains at the school reportedly spoke of evangelizing to the “unchurched,” and the football coach made references to Jesus.

The new regulations are for the entire Air Force, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said last week that they could be replicated throughout the military.

“It’s one piece of a broader initiative that will, I hope, allow for a real clarification of the real vision in the military,” said Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a retired military chaplain who was hired by the Air Force last month to oversee implementation of “values and vision.”

The regulations focus on the need for sensitivity toward people of all faiths or no faith. Chaplains are reminded that they’re obligated to minister to people of other faiths and those without religion.

“They must be as sensitive to those who do not welcome offerings of faith, as they are generous in sharing their faith with those who do,” the guidelines said. “In addition, they must remain sensitive to the responsibilities of superior rank, and they should respect professional settings where mandatory participation may make expressions of religious faith inappropriate.”

Resnicoff said the message was clear to chaplains that they have to respect the rights of all soldiers.

“A chaplain has to understand that he or she can not do certain things as a chaplain that a clergy person can,” he said. “We give power to people in uniform to accomplish a mission; we do not give them power to change the religious beliefs of other.”

The guidelines say all requests for religious accommodation should be approved unless precluded by military necessity, and commanders should try to avoid scheduling conflicts with major religious observances.

Public prayers are outlawed outside of volunteer worship services, but nonsectarian prayers are allowed during “non-routine military ceremonies and events of special importance.”

Resnicoff said the guidelines would be incorporated in all training of soldiers at the Air Force, and he expects changes to be seen imminently.

Already, he said, time has been set aside on Fridays and Saturdays for religious services. Previously, services were scheduled only on Sundays, and Jews and others had to seek special permission to attend services on other days.

Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force veteran who has two children in the service, said he believes the guidelines contain”very nice language” but would do little to end religious hostilities at the academy — which his son attends — and elsewhere in the service.

“They’re making this up as they go along,” Weinstein said. “They’re just pretty words that mean nothing.”

He said the Air Force Academy should call on one chaplain to recant recent comments in which the man suggested he would still evangelize to the “unchurched.”

Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, called the guidelines a “huge step forward.”

“Given the opposition the Air Force takes to any restrictions, it is even a larger step forward,” Stern said. “But there are some places where they have glossed over some problems,”

The rules also were welcomed by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and by Reps. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who have been critical of the military on this issue.

“Obviously, the real test of these regulations will be their implementation,” Capps said. “It is absolutely critical that the Air Force leadership ensure that these regulations are well understood and strictly enforced, especially at the Air Force Academy.”

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