New U.S. Air Force guidelines for religious tolerance drew praise from some Jewish organizations but are being criticized by a Republican lawmaker.
The guidelines, issued Monday, say commanders should try to comply with religious accommodations for all airmen and women, and that senior airmen and women need to be sensitive to the fact that personal expressions of faith might be viewed as official statements.
The new regulations come amid reports from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., that members of religious minorities felt pressure to prioritize their military duties over religious observance and felt they were in an overtly Christian atmosphere. Chaplains at the school reportedly spoke of evangelizing the “unchurched,” and the football coach made references to Jesus.
The guidelines were criticized by Rep. Walter Jones, the North Carolina Republican who suggested in May that the allegations of religious coercion at the Air Force academy amounted to “political correctness.” Jones, who made the comment during a May 18 House Armed Services Committee hearing, told the Forward that the new guidelines suggested that the Air Force had yielded to liberals who backed legislative action.
“My concern is that it just seems like one assault after another on what I think are the Judeo-Christian values of America,” Jones said. “I felt that the Air Force defended itself very well. But if they have made significant changes, then I think they are yielding to outside political pressure.”
Jones introduced a bill July 27 that would protect prayer in military academies. The Military Academy First Amendment Protection Act, co-sponsored by Del. Madeleine Bordallo, a Democrat from Guam, ensures that military academies may offer voluntary, nondenominational prayers.
“This practice seems to meet reasonable standards of inclusion and does not seem to be disrespectful of any religion or those with no religious beliefs,” Bordallo wrote to the Forward in an e-mail. “It would be regrettable if the military, which has its people in harm’s way, did not allow for reasonable accommodations for the expression of spirituality.”
The new Air Force guidelines, published August 29, are the culmination of a months-long investigation prompted by allegations of religious coercion in an April report by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group. In outlining complaints from cadets — including a vocal Jewish cadet, Casey Weinstein — the report described “systemic and pervasive” incidents of proselytizing and harassment of cadets by evangelical senior cadets and academy instructors at the Colorado Springs-based military academy.
On Tuesday, President Bush nominated a new superintendent of the Air Force academy, Lt. Gen. John F. Regni.
The debate over the allegations has pitted some conservative Republicans, including Jones, against those who have called for legislative action to address the situation at the academy, including Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, who proposed an amendment that would have required the Air Force to submit a plan ensuring religious tolerance at the academy.
At the May 18 hearing, Rep. John Hostettler, an Indiana Republican, expressed disdain for the “mythical wall of church-state separation” and added that Israel’s measures would “quash the religious expression of millions of service personnel.”
On Tuesday, Israel dismissed criticism of the new guidelines. “Extremists will never be satisfied,” Israel said. “I’m not surprised that extremists who have no problem compelling Air Force cadets to pray a certain way would have a problem with a commonsense Air Force report that enforces pluralism and tolerance in our military.”
Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, praised the new guidelines.
In a related story, The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the Army has listed former military chaplain, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldman, as a deserter, though Goldman reportedly claims he left in 2002 for his native Canada after bearing the brunt of antisemitic harassment from Christian colleagues.