The U.S. Air Force says it will drop a policy that allowed chaplains to proselytize service members with no religion, in an effort to settle a lawsuit brought by an Americans United member.
Mikey Weinstein, an Albuquerque attorney and alumnus of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, filed suit last month over a code for chaplains written by the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF), a private group that provides chaplains to the military.
In an effort to smooth tensions among denominations, the NCMAF guidelines discourage “sheep stealing” that is, converting members of one faith to another. The policy instead recommends proselytizing those who have no religious affiliation.
The sentence reads, “I will not actively proselytize from other religious bodies. However, I retain the right to instruct and/or evangelize those who are not affiliated.”
Air Force officials claim the document was never official policy. But critics point out that it was distributed at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base, where chaplains train. In July, the Air Force’s deputy chief of chaplains, Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richard\xadson, implied that the language was official policy, echoing it in an interview with The New York Times.
“We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched,” Richardson said.
Weinstein said the policy amounted to an official Air Force promotion of evangelistic activity that violated the rights of those who may have consciously chosen to be non-religious.
“Does that mean atheists or agnostics don’t have the rights of other Americans?” Weinstein said an interview with The Times. “And how do they decide who’s not affiliated? What about Protestants that just go to the Easter sunrise service or the midnight Mass at Christmas?”
An Air Force attorney, Mary L. Walker, had originally claimed that the Air Force had no “existing policy” endorsing proselytism. She did acknowledge that the Air Force had withdrawn the chaplains’ guidelines, conceding the document might have led some chaplains to believe they have a right to proselytize.
Religious Right groups are furious over the matter. Focus on the Family (FOF), which is located in Colorado Springs near the Academy, has accused the Air Force of violating chaplains’ religious freedom rights.
“Mikey Weinstein might not like it, but it is the job of an evangelical Christian chaplain to evangelize,” Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for FOF told The Washington Post. “It’s protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.”
FOF opponents say Minnery is wrong. Traditionally, military chaplains have been expected to accommodate the various religious needs of soldiers who may be stationed far from home away from their houses of worship. Their job is to facilitate religious worship, not seek converts.
The Family Research Council and TV preacher Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” have also attacked the Air Force. On Oct. 13, Robertson associate Lee Webb interviewed Beryl Hubbard, a retired Air Force chaplain. Hubbard, who works with NCMAF, urged fellow evangelical chaplains to ignore the no-proselytizing rule.
“Before resigning, I certainly would go down with the ship, fall on my sword by sharing the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Hubbard said.
Webb asked, “And that is what you are advising other chaplains to do if it does become etched in stone?”
Replied Hubbard, “Absolutely.”
Weinstein, whose son Casey is an Academy graduate and whose son Curtis currently is enrolled at the Academy, asserts that the institution is pervaded with officially sanctioned evangelical Christian influence. He also reported that his son Curtis has been subjected to anti-Semitic slurs.
An Americans United report sent to the Pentagon earlier this year documented some of the problems at the Academy. The Air Force subsequently issued new guidelines governing religious activity in the service.