Evangelical Christian groups, members of Congress and a senior military chaplain are pressing the Air Force to soften or drop its new restrictions on public prayers and evangelizing in the armed forces.
The Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and other Christian advocacy groups have deluged the White House and Pentagon with thousands of phone calls, letters and e-mails denouncing the Air Force guidelines as an infringement of religious freedom.
Seventy House members sent a letter to President Bush last week objecting to the guidelines and urging him to issue an executive order protecting "the constitutional right of military chaplains to pray according to their faith." Thirty-five members of Congress signed a similar letter to the acting secretary of the Air Force.
About 10 days ago, the Air Force's chief of chaplains, Maj. Gen. Charles C. Baldwin, sent a videotaped message to all of his active-duty and reserve chaplains and their assistants -- more than 1,000 people -- suggesting that the rules need to be changed and inviting their feedback to help the Air Force "get this right."
Baldwin, a Southern Baptist, also advised chaplains that the guidelines do not prevent senior officers from discussing their religious beliefs with subordinates.
"This is America, and for those of us who come from belief systems that require us to tell others of our faith and what we believe, this is so important that we feel free to do this. Just have to put it in the right context and never again coerce anyone to believe something that they don't want to believe," he said on the videotape, obtained by The Washington Post.
The Air Force issued its three-page "Interim Guidelines Concerning Free Exercise of Religion in the Air Force" on Aug. 29 after allegations that evangelical Christian commanders, faculty and upperclassmen pressured cadets at the Air Force Academy.
The guidelines are worded as recommendations rather than as hard-and-fast rules. They urge commanders to be "sensitive" about discussing their faith with subordinates. "The more senior the individual, the more likely that personal expressions may be perceived to be official statements," they say.
The guidelines also say that "public prayer should not usually be included in official settings" such as staff meetings, classes and sports events, but that "a brief non-sectarian prayer" may be included in events of "special importance." Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a retired Navy chaplain who helped write the guidelines, said they do not restrict the prayers that may be said in base chapels or voluntary worship services.
The Air Force's top officers are scheduled to discuss the guidelines and consider revisions at a meeting at the Air Force Academy this week. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has told religious leaders that if the rules work well, they may be instituted throughout the armed services -- a prospect that has alarmed evangelical groups.
"We're afraid that once these go into effect, the other services -- Army, Navy and Marine Corps -- will succumb to the same kind of political correctness and therefore things like the noon prayer at Annapolis will be endangered," said Jim Backlin, the Christian Coalition's chief lobbyist, referring to a daily prayer before lunch at the U.S. Naval Academy.
One of the main complaints from evangelical groups and members of Congress is that the guidelines could stop Christian chaplains from praying in the name of Jesus at public events.
"The current demand in the guidelines for so-called 'non-sectarian' prayers is merely a euphemism declaring that prayers will be acceptable only so long as they censor Christian beliefs," said the letter to Bush from 70 House members. Among the signers were Armed Services Committee members Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), Todd Akin (R-Mo.), Jim Ryun (R-Kan.), Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.) and Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.).
Jones said in an interview that "if you continue to go down this road, you will have a time when you have chaplains restricted in what they can say over a dying soldier on the battlefield."
Akin said he met two weeks ago with Pete Geren, acting secretary of the Air Force, to urge the military to allow "free speech" for all chaplains at public ceremonies. "He said, 'Are you going to be happy with a Muslim offering a prayer?' " Akin recounted. "And I said, 'Sure.' " Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein, a 1977 Air Force Academy graduate, filed a lawsuit Oct. 6 accusing the Air Force of violating the Constitution by allowing aggressive evangelizing at the academy. He said yesterday that he plans to bolster the suit by adding four active-duty lieutenants -- his son, Casey, and three other members of the academy's Class of 2004 -- as plaintiffs.
Weinstein also took issue with Baldwin's contention that senior officers can share their religious beliefs with subordinates as long as there is no coercion. "It can't be done non-coercively when you're on duty," Weinstein said. "How does a junior officer say to a senior officer, 'I don't want to listen to this' without worrying about offending the senior officer?"
On the videotape, Baldwin says prayers, hymns, "life lessons" or scripture readings are still permissible at routine staff meetings. Weinstein said that undermines the guidelines.
Baldwin, Geren and other Air Force leaders declined to comment. "The Air Force has sought input from the Congress, prominent individuals and organizations outside of government and conducted focus groups within the Air Force. This is an important effort, and we continue to welcome feedback," said Capt. David W. Small, an Air Force spokesman.