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Religion Spat In Air Force Becomes Issue In ’06 Election

In a sign that church-state separation debates could turn stormy next year, the controversy over religious coercion by evangelical Christian officers at the U.S. Air Force Academy is emerging as a 2006 campaign issue — for both sides.

Nick Reid, a Republican congressional challenger in Wisconsin, is criticizing 36-year Democratic incumbent Rep. David Obey over a measure he proposed in June that would have required the Air Force to report to Congress on the steps it was taking to investigate and ameliorate the coercion at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Reid, 25, a former Capitol Hill aide, said that Obey’s proposal for curbing evangelizing at the academy was “a step toward limiting the First Amendment and religious freedom in the military.”

Democrats also are aiming to capitalize on the issue.

The executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, said that his group had taken out advertisements in Jewish newspapers in Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania in order to highlight how GOP Congress members in competitive districts had voted with their fellow Republicans to defeat Obey’s measure. Forman identified State Senator Ron Klein, the Florida Democrat challenging Republican incumbent Rep. Clay Shaw, as one candidate “likely to find traction” with the issue among Jewish voters.

“The fact that key House Republicans have opposed efforts to end proselytizing at the Air Force Academy should be disturbing to most Americans, but it is certainly an issue that will continue to resonate with American Jews — and we have every intention of holding their feet to the fire on this one,” Forman said.

Mikey Weinstein, a New Mexico lawyer whose sons were among the academy cadets who reported experiencing anti-Jewish slurs and coercion, told the Forward that he is talking to other veterans about forming a political action committee around the issue of religious coercion in the military.

Weinstein is bent on ousting his congresswoman, Republican Rep. Heather Wilson, over what he claims was her inattention to the complaints about coercion at the academy. Wilson said that she is doing everything possible to address the situation, but Weinstein, himself an academy graduate, is backing the Democratic challenger, the state’s attorney general, Patricia Madrid.

The various campaign developments come as at least two Jewish organizations are vowing to combat efforts to Christianize American life. In recent weeks, leaders of the Anti-Defamation League and of the Union for Reform Judaism have criticized recent actions by the religious right. The national director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, criticized evangelical Christian groups and their political allies for trying to bring down the wall of separation between church and state and inject Christian doctrine into the public square. The comments raised the specter of animus between Jewish groups and the GOP.

Acknowledging that the coercion at the academy was a systemic problem, the Air Force has developed regulations to deal with it — a move that prompted 70 Republican congressmen who recently signed a letter to President Bush asking him to relax the guidelines.

Earlier this year, Republicans, in a party-line vote, defeated Obey’s measure requiring the Air Force to investigate the situation at the academy. The vote generated some harsh words on the floor of Congress from GOP lawmakers, stopping House business for 45 minutes.

Republican Rep. John Hostettler of Indiana, for one, accused Obey and another Democrat who had offered a similar measure, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, of “denigrating and demonizing Christians” and of waging a “war on Christianity in America.”

Asked if he agreed with Hostettler’s assessment that Obey and others were waging a war against Christianity, Reid, the GOP challenger, said, “I wouldn’t go that far.” But, he added, Obey — who represents the state’s largest district, a scenic swath of northwest Wisconsin dairy country — was taking “a dangerous step toward limiting chaplains’ rights to express their religious convictions to cadets.” Reid described the coercion at the academy as “isolated instances.”

So far, Hostettler’s Democratic opponent, Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth, hasn’t raised the Air Force issue. His staffers have said that this is because there is plenty of fertile ground to hoe in Hostettler’s recent votes against foreign aid and resolutions expressing solidarity with Israel.

“We are finding support in the Jewish community not only locally, but in Indianapolis, Chicago and other places across the country, because they’re not happy with Rep. Hostettler’s record on Israel,” said Ellsworth’s campaign manager, Brad Howser.

Hostettler’s spokeswoman had no comment.

NJDC’s Forman said that his organization would play up the issue.

“American Jews recognize that this issue is emblematic of where today’s GOP is when it comes to the separation of church and state,” he said. “That line of separation gets thinner day by day.”

Some Democrats, however, have approached the issue more warily.

New York’s Israel, who leads the outreach to the Jewish community of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he is not trying to score any political points off the issue.

“If there’s any politics on this whatsoever, it’s coming from the Republicans,” he said, adding that he considered the matter resolved when the Air Force generated its guidelines.

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