The Air Force, facing a lawsuit over alleged proselytizing, has withdrawn a document that permitted chaplains to evangelize military personnel who were not affiliated with any faith, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
The document was circulated at the Air Force Chaplain School until eight weeks ago. It was a "code of ethics" for chaplains that included the statement "I will not proselytize from other religious bodies, but I retain the right to evangelize those who are not affiliated."
The code was written by the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF), a private association of religious bodies that provide chaplains to the military. It was never an official directive of the Defense Department, but the fact that it was handed out at the chaplains school at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., "might have given the impression that it was Air Force policy," said Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a retired Navy chaplain who is a special adviser to the secretary of the Air Force.
The Air Force distanced itself from the code of ethics after complaints by Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein, a 1977 Air Force Academy graduate who has accused the academy's current leaders of fostering pressure on cadets to convert to evangelical Christianity.
Last week, Weinstein filed suit in federal court in New Mexico, alleging "severe, systemic and pervasive" religious discrimination in the Air Force. Among other evidence, the suit cited a July 12 New York Times article that quoted Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, the Air Force's deputy chief of chaplains, as saying: "We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched."
Weinstein said yesterday that before filing the lawsuit, he asked senior Air Force officials to explain whether Richardson was speaking for the service.
"They say the bad guys we're fighting, the jihadists, represent a theocratic, fascistic movement," Weinstein said. "If the United States Air Force, probably the most technologically lethal organization ever assembled by man, has a policy of evangelizing 'the unchurched,' you tell me how that makes us look."
Mary L. Walker, the Air Force's general counsel, responded to Weinstein in an Oct. 5 letter. "There is no existing Air Force policy endorsing 'proselytizing' or 'evangelizing' 'the unchurched.' An earlier Chaplain Service document that might have been understood to represent such a policy statement was withdrawn from use by the Chaplain Service beginning on August 10," she wrote.
Because of the Columbus Day holiday, Walker could not be reached to comment yesterday. An Air Force official said her letter was referring both to the NCMAF code of ethics and to a draft version of a possible Air Force code of ethics that was withdrawn at the same time.
The Air Force has new guidelines on religious tolerance that discourage public prayers on all but rare occasions. They do not ban evangelizing but 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."
Weinstein called the guidelines insufficient, but evangelical Christian groups attacked them as overly restrictive. "Mikey Weinstein might not like it, but it is the job of an evangelical Christian chaplain to evangelize," said Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for the Colorado-based Focus on the Family. "It's protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free exercise of religion."
Resnicoff said the "amazing, positive thing that people are missing" about the NCMAF code of ethics is that "even the most evangelical chaplains are agreeing not to try to change the religion of a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu -- anyone who has a religious faith."