Air Force Sets Rules Limiting Religious Expression

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Air Force, responding to accusations of proselytizing at its academy in Colorado Springs, issued sweeping guidelines yesterday that say prayers are not appropriate at most official events and discourage commanders from speaking publicly about their religious beliefs.

The guidelines apply to all officers, enlisted personnel and civilian employees throughout the Air Force, not just to those at the Air Force Academy. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a delegation of religious leaders last week that if the rules work well, they will be instituted across the armed forces.

"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.

Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a retired Navy chaplain, was hired in June by the acting secretary of the Air Force to help develop the guidelines following accusations that evangelical Christians at the Air Force Academy had tried to impose their faith on other cadets.

Resnicoff said yesterday that the guidelines try to balance the Constitution's guarantee of "free exercise" of religion with its prohibition on any "establishment" of religion by the government.

They urge commanders to welcome requests for accommodation of religious practices, and they place no restrictions on "voluntary, peer to peer" discussions of faith. But they say officers must be "sensitive" to the potential for comments about their own faith to be perceived as official statements, and they say chaplains "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 also say that "public prayer should not usually be included" in official meetings, classes or sporting events, although "a brief non-sectarian prayer" may be recited in ceremonies of special importance "to add a heightened sense of seriousness or solemnity."

That will be a far-reaching change, according to Resnicoff. "In many places throughout the Air Force, people have told me that if they have four meetings in a day, they have four prayers," he said.

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