Air Force Should Not Promote Religion, Says Americans United

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged the Air Force to adopt guidelines that bar coercive forms of proselytization by senior officers and chaplains.

Attorneys with Americans United were invited to comment on proposed guidelines on religious activity by Air Force officials. In a seven-page letter delivered Nov. 2, AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan and Assistant Legal Director Richard Katskee outline a series of steps to strengthen and clarify the guidelines.

The recommendations offered by Khan and Katskee include: prohibiting official prayer at any event where attendance is mandatory; adopting a clear rule barring the proselytization of subordinates by senior officers; banning proselytization by chaplains and developing clear guidelines dealing with use of the government e-mail system to disseminate religious messages.

Noted Khan and Katskee in the letter to Mary L. Walker, U.S. Air Force general counsel, “There is much in the proposed guidelines that is excellent. But there are also several aspects of the proposed guidelines that give rise to constitutional concerns by misleading individuals or otherwise engendering confusion about the legal requirements for permissible religious expression under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Consti­tution.”

Earlier this year, Americans United asked Air Force officials to look into allegations of official preference toward evangelical Christianity at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. A team that investigated the atmosphere at the Academy recommended the adoption of guidelines governing religious activity at the institution and in the Air Force generally.

The proposed guidelines have been attacked by Religious Right groups and their congressional allies. U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) and 70 members of Congress have written to Presi­dent George W. Bush, urging him to issue an executive order permitting chaplains to pray in a sectarian manner.

“Chaplains ought to be able to pray based on who they are,” U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) told The Washington Times. “Otherwise it’s hypocrisy.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn criticized Jones and his supporters for dismissing the need for religious diversity in the military.

“The Air Force exists to defend the country, not spread evangelical Chris­tianity or any other faith,” Lynn said. “We urge the Air Force to adopt guidelines that respect individual religious practice but bar the official promotion of religion.”

The issue of proselytizing by chaplains has been especially contentious. Mikey Weinstein, an Americans United member whose son attends the Air Force Academy, has filed suit, arguing that an Air Force policy that allows chaplains to proselytize the “unchurched” is unconstitutional.

Focus on the Family (FOF), which is located in Colorado Springs not far from the Academy, has attacked Weinstein’s lawsuit. Bob Maginnis, a retired Army colonel who works with FOF, told the group’s CitizenLink that Weinstein’s legal effort is “another attempt by those outside of the military really to impose their secular agenda.”

Maginnis is apparently ignorant of the fact that Weinstein is hardly “outside of the military.” He graduated from the Academy and sent two sons there. Weinstein’s son Curtis is currently an Academy cadet.

Last month, Weinstein’s older son, Casey, joined the lawsuit along with three other Air Force officers. The move should blunt any legal claims that Mikey Weinstein, who is no longer a member of the Air Force, lacks the right to sue.

Aside from FOF, the Christian Coalition and the American Center for Law and Justice have criticized the Air Force. In late October, ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow issued a fund-raising letter claiming the rights of Christian chaplains were being violated.

“For many Christian chaplains, praying in the name of Jesus is a fundamental part of their beliefs,” Sekulow wrote. “To suppress this form of expression would be a violation of their constitutional rights and religious freedoms.”

AU points out that the job of chaplains is to meet the religious needs of service members who may be stationed far from their home congregations. Their job is to provide requested religious services, not win converts on the government’s dime.

Other branches of the military understand this and curb chaplain proselytizing. Martha Rudd, a spokeswoman for the Army, told The Times that chaplains are expected to use general language when addressing large gatherings.

“They call for a slightly different approach,” Rudd said. “The Army wants chaplains to show respect for all faiths.”