The Air Force's Retreat

Monday, March 27, 2006

THE AIR FORCE got it right when it issued a carefully calibrated set of guidelines on religious expression last August. The proposed new rules protected the ability of service members to practice their religion and emphasized the importance of tolerating and accommodating religious beliefs. But -- taking note of the unique setting of the military, where issues of rank and discipline come into play -- the guidelines also guarded against behavior that could make cadets at the Air Force Academy or service members feel compelled to engage in religious activities or disadvantaged if they declined.

Unfortunately, facing a barrage of complaints from evangelical Christian groups and pressure from members of Congress, the Air Force backed down. It has issued a revised set of rules that pose the potential for inappropriate religious pressure on cadets and service members. This pushes the balance in the wrong direction, especially in light of disturbing reports from the Air Force Academy about religious intolerance and inappropriate proselytizing.

One troubling issue in the revised guidelines concerns the ability of superior officers to proselytize or otherwise promote their faith. The original guidelines emphasized that "individuals need to be sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official expressions," adding, "the more senior the individual, the more likely that personal expressions may be perceived to be official statements."

The new guidelines move away from this common-sense approach and emphasize superior officers' rights over the dangers of coercion. For example, the guidelines say, "Nothing in this guidance should be understood to limit the substance of voluntary discussions of religion . . . 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." But reasonably clear to whom? What looks uncoercive to an officer can look awfully official to a cadet.

The original guidelines said that prayer should not be a routine part of official military life, "such as staff meetings, office meetings, classes or officially sanctioned activities such as sports events or practice sessions."

However, they said, "Consistent with long-standing military tradition, a brief non-sectarian prayer may be included in non-routine military ceremonies or events of special importance."

The new guidelines are softer on this issue as well, saying that public prayer "should not usually be a part of routine official business." Although they do not go as far as evangelical groups had wanted in explicitly permitting chaplains to pray "in Jesus's name," they state that chaplains "will not be required to participate in religious activities, including public prayer, inconsistent with their faiths" -- a statement that opens the door to sectarian prayer. It's unfortunate that the Air Force, having struck the balance so well last year, was bullied into this unwise retreat.

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