By E.J. Kessler

Published February 17, 2006, issue of February 17, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — Two months after the head of the Anti-Defamation League called for a united Jewish front against evangelical attempts to “Christianize” America, the ADL found itself pitted against a raft of other communal organizations in a controversy over guidelines for religious speech in the U.S. Air Force.

The Air Force released revised interim guidelines last week to address what the military has acknowledged were “systemic” problems with Christian religious coercion at the Air Force Academy. The academy is situated in Colorado Springs, Colo., home of a number of evangelical Christian organizations.

An earlier draft of the guidelines, released in June 2005, was criticized by evangelical groups and some conservative congressmen as overly restrictive of religious liberties. Conservatives last week hailed the new guidelines as a victory that would safeguard Christians’ rights to share their views in the military.

The guidelines were slammed by the national director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman. He was joined by activist Mikey Weinstein — the New Mexico lawyer and 1977 academy graduate who is suing the federal government over religious coercion at the academy — and by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

They argued that the guidelines, which were scaled back to one page from four, had been unacceptably watered down. Their view was supported by Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who raised the issue of the coercion in Congress last year. His initiative was shot down by conservative Republicans who are close to Christian evangelicals.

Other Jewish groups, however, declined to follow the ADL’s lead. In a joint statement, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism commended the Air Force for issuing the guidelines, saying that they “go far in addressing the unfortunate situation which prevailed at the Air Force Academy.” The statement praised Air Force officials who “persevered in this effort, despite challenges from some members of Congress and others who failed to understand the fundamental limits the American Constitution imposes on its officials.”

The split appears to represent a setback for Foxman’s call, issued in a November speech, for a unified strategy. Speaking to a national ADL conference, Foxman warned of a broad-based effort by evangelical groups to “Christianize America.” He asked other Jewish organizations to join ADL in countering that push. Several weeks later, Foxman and the leaders of a handful of large Jewish organizations — including the head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Steve Gutow, met to discuss the contours of such a joint effort.

This week, the bid for a coordinated position appears to have stalled.

An irate Foxman called the new guidelines “a significant step backward” from the earlier draft. He said that they undermined earlier steps that the Air Force had taken to address the religious intolerance at the academy. Foxman charged that the changes were a cave-in to political pressure.

“I spent significant time in Colorado Springs with some Air Force personnel and in Washington with Pentagon officials, and I thought we were all on the same page,” Foxman told the Forward. “There was a recognition that there was a significant problem and that standards were violated…. Then the political manifestation happened, when 70 congressmen wrote a letter, and all of a sudden we wake up with guidelines that are a pushback.”

The guidelines state that “public prayer should not imply government endorsement of religion and should not usually be a part of routine official business.” In addition, they say that “nothing in this guidance should be understood to limit the substance of voluntary discussion of religion.”

Weinstein, whose son is cadet at the academy, said in a statement that the new guidelines “would seemingly allow for public prayer at mandatory military formations” and “provide no protection for the rights of those who don’t practice a majority faith and those who choose to not worship at all.”

Although Foxman said that he respected other Jewish groups’ views on the matter, he added, “You don’t give up principle.” He disputed the idea that the joint front idea was foundering, saying that it was only meant to be an ad hoc coalition acting together “when possible.”

The assistant executive director of AJCongress, Marc Stern, called the new guidelines “a substantial improvement which will solve all or most of the problem” of religious coercion at the academy. Stern insisted that the differences between the ADL and the other groups were “not all that great” and that they boiled down to a matter of tactics. “Do you play hard-line so that you’re not constantly eroded, or do you recognize when you’ve got most of what you need?” he told the Forward. “We think one is better. They think the other is better.”

Stern did offer a more general criticism of Foxman’s strategy, saying, “He forgot to take the troops with him, I guess.”

“I don’t know that the Jewish community wants to be tied to what goes on in the past as opposed to what goes on now,” Stern continued. “Foxman is trying to position ADL in a particular way vis-à-vis the evangelicals and religion and state — to put it closer to [the Rev.] Barry Lynn,” head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Noting that Foxman had opposed the suit brought by atheist Michael Newdow to remove the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, calling it “frivolous,” Stern said, “I don’t know how you reconcile that with the speech he gave last fall” and with his tough stance on the Air Force guidelines. “Can you put all that together in a coherent strategy? I’m not sure.”

The head of the Reform action center, Rabbi David Saperstein, said that the new guidelines “take us a long way in the right direction in protecting service men and women from religious coercion,” even though “some changes were aimed at accommodating the religious right.”

Both Foxman and Saperstein said that other military services would likely move to develop guidelines and that the focus would now shift to implementation and training of chaplains. “That will be the real test,” Saperstein said.

The Air Force vigorously defended the guidelines. In an interview with Air Force Print News, Roger Brady, Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel, said that the guidelines “provide a simple document that is easy for all airmen to comprehend.”

“The guidelines address prayer at military events, but in no way restrict private prayer or chaplains’ activities in religious settings,” Brady said. “We respect the rights of chaplains to adhere to the tenets of their individual faiths, and they will not be required to participate in religious activities, including public prayer, inconsistent with their faiths.”

Praising the guidelines, Tom Minnery, senior vice president for government and public policy at the Christian conservative group Focus on the Family, said in a statement that the guidelines, “if they are applied properly, will safeguard the free exercise of religion guaranteed to all citizens, both military and civilian.”

“We hope these guidelines will bring an end to the frontal assault on the Air Force by secularists who would make the military a wasteland of relativism, where robust discussion of faith is impossible,” Minnery continued. “That has not been the history of our armed forces, and it should not be their future.”

“We particularly thank the Air Force for specifically recognizing that ‘voluntary participation in worship, prayer, study and discussion is integral to the free exercise of religion.’ Some have claimed an offense against the Constitution at the mere mention of these matters, although nothing could be further from the truth.”

Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., a North Carolina Republican who was the principle author of the congressional letter expressing alarm at the earlier draft guidelines, told The Washington Post that he considers the revised guidelines an improvement but is not completely satisfied.

“There is some progress,” Jones said, “but it does not go as far as it needs to go in making sure that Christian chaplains can pray in the name of Jesus and other chaplains can pray according to their faiths.”

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