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Air Force Rules Rile Republicans

Dozens of Republican lawmakers are pressing the Bush administration to relax a set of new restrictions aimed at curbing religious coercion within the U.S. Air Force.

In an October 25 letter to President Bush, 70 Republicans and one Democrat urged him to protect the constitutional rights of Christian military chaplains whose freedom of speech and religious expression are “under direct attack.” The letter refers to new religious guidelines adopted by the Air Force this summer after an investigation revealed religious coercion at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The guidelines state that “public prayer should not usually be included in official settings” and instruct that, when an exception is made, any prayer recited should be “non-sectarian.” Conservative Christian organizations and the chief of the Air Force’s chaplain service, Charles C. Baldwin, also reportedly are pushing to soften the restrictions, which were drafted with the help of retired Navy chaplain Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff.

The fight is the latest ripple in a church-state crisis that has roiled the Air Force, revealing deep partisan divides and an increasingly strong allegiance between some Republican lawmakers and Christian conservative organizations.

In the latest round, conservative lawmakers are objecting to the “Interim Guidelines on Free Exercise of Religion” adopted by the Air Force on August 29. In their letter to the president, the lawmakers wrote: “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.”

Rep. Walter Jones, the North Carolina Republican who drafted the letter, told the Forward that the new guidelines reflect “the continuous attack and erosion on people of faith in this country.”

“We have got to protect the First Amendment rights of all of our spiritual leaders,” Jones said. Jones told the Forward that he “would fight this hard if it were a Jewish rabbi” whose rights were violated.

Democrats, as well as many Jewish groups, said that the new rules are needed to protect minorities.

“Ten years ago, much of the evangelical community was prepared to acknowledge limits,” said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress. Today, he said, “there is not a willingness to do that.”

Rep. Lois Capps, a California Democrat who, along with New York Democrat Rep. Steve Israel, unsuccessfully pushed for Congressional oversight over the situation at the academy, defended the new rules in a written statement to the Forward, saying they “highlight the responsibility of superior officers in preventing religious intolerance.”

Israel rejected the criticisms of the new rules. “Of course they have a right to pray,” he said, “I just don’t believe they have any right to harass or coerce people into praying a certain way.”

The regulations were adopted after outside groups cited numerous claims that evangelical Christian cadets and commanders have fostered an atmosphere of coercion and religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy.

In June, Republican congressmen killed two proposed amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have required the Air Force to submit a plan to Congress for ensuring religious tolerance at the academy. At a meeting of the House Committee on Armed Services, Republicans criticized the proposed measures. Rep. John Hostettler, an Indiana Republican, denounced the “mythical wall of church-state separation” and insinuated that the proposed measures would “quash the religious expression of millions of service personnel.”

In recent weeks, other lawmakers who are upset over the new guidelines have joined Jones’s protest, including Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democrat from North Carolina. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican, collected 35 signatures for a letter protesting the new regulations to then-acting Air Force secretary Pete Geren. Tiahrt met last month with the Air Force’s chief of staff to express his objections.

Air Force spokeswoman Stephanie Stephens told the Forward: “We appreciate the interest in the interim guidelines. We are currently seeking feedback.”

One key figure in the ongoing controversy at the Air Force Academy, football coach Fisher DeBerry, has found himself in hot water again. He was denounced by some critics earlier this year for posting a sign in the locker room that read: “I am a Christian first and last; I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.”

He recently apologized for saying that an opposing team won because it had “more Afro-American players than we did,” and “Afro-American kids can run very well.”

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