February 11, 2006
U.S. Prayer Force
With the emphasis on force:
The Air Force, under pressure from evangelical Christian groups and members of Congress, softened its guidelines on religious expression yesterday to emphasize that superior officers may discuss their faith with subordinates and that chaplains will not be required to offer nonsectarian prayers.
“This does affirm every airman’s right, even the commanders’ right, to free exercise of religion, and that means sharing your faith,” said Maj. Gen. Charles C. Baldwin, the Air Force’s chief of chaplains.
The guidelines were first issued in late August after allegations that evangelical Christian commanders, coaches and cadets at the Air Force Academy had pressured cadets of other faiths. The original wording sought to tamp down religious fervor and to foster tolerance throughout the Air Force. It discouraged public prayers at routine events and warned superior officers that personal expressions of faith could be misunderstood as official statements.
But evangelical groups, such as the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, saw the guidelines as overly restrictive. They launched a nationwide petition drive, sounded alarms on Christian radio stations, and deluged the White House and Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne’s office with e-mails calling the guidelines an infringement of the Constitution’s guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion.
Seventy-two members of Congress also signed a letter to President Bush criticizing the guidelines and urging him to issue an executive order guaranteeing the right of military chaplains to pray “in Jesus’ name” rather than being forced to offer nonsectarian prayers at public ceremonies.
The revised guidelines are considerably shorter than the original, filling one page instead of four. They place more emphasis on the Constitution’s free exercise clause, which is mentioned four times, than on its prohibition on any government establishment of religion, which is mentioned twice.
… Americans United for . of Church and State, a Washington-based group whose investigation of the Air Force Academy helped spark the controversy last year, said the revisions “focus heavily on protecting the rights of chaplains, while ignoring the rights of nonbelievers and minority faiths.”
Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, an Albuquerque lawyer who is suing the Air Force over its policy on religion, questioned the sentence allowing commanders to share their faith when it is “reasonably clear” that they are speaking personally, not officially.
“Reasonably clear from whose perspective, the superior’s or the subordinate’s?” asked Weinstein, a 1977 Air Force Academy graduate. “When a senior member of your chain of command wants to speak to you ‘reasonably’ about religion, saying ‘Get out of my face, sir!’ is not an option.”
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