THE AIR FORCE'S new guidelines on religious expression and religious tolerance say all the right things. That's important and necessary considering the disturbing accounts of religious intolerance and inappropriate proselytizing, particularly at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Among the reported incidents: a chaplain instructing cadets to try to convert classmates by warning that they "will burn in the fires of hell" if they do not accept Christ; first-year cadets who declined to attend after-dinner chapel being marched back to their dormitories in a "heathen flight"; and a Jewish student taunted as a "Christ killer" and told that the Holocaust was the just punishment for that offense.

The guidelines caution chaplains to "respect the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs." They warn that in discussions of religion, "individuals need to be sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official expressions" -- especially if the person doing the expressing is of senior rank and the junior person is required to be present. They instruct commanders to "ensure that they create a climate where individuals believe that requests for [religious] accommodation are welcomed and will be fairly considered."

One difficult issue that bears further thought as the Air Force translates these interim guidelines into final form is the matter of public prayer, which the new guidelines discourage but don't prohibit. "Public prayer should not usually be included in official settings such as staff meetings, office meetings, classes or officially sanctioned activities," the guidelines say.

But they recognize that "there may be extraordinary circumstances" -- mass casualties, preparation for imminent combat and natural disasters are specifically cited -- "where the potential benefits for the welfare of the command outweigh the potential of causing discomfort." Moreover, the guidelines say "a brief, nonsectarian prayer" may be included in ceremonies "of special importance," such as a change of command.

This sounds like a sensible balancing of interests, but it's important that the public prayer exceptions don't end up swallowing the general rule.