Air Force Brass Issues New Guidelines On Religious Activity

Seeking to quell a growing controversy over inappropriate forms of religious proselytizing at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Air Force officials Aug. 30 issued a set of interim guidelines governing religious activity.

The guidelines resulted from an Air Force Task Force report issued last June that acknowledged problems at the Academy and called for specific recommendations to address them.

The new guidelines make it clear that while service members retain the right to discuss religion with their peers, senior officers must take pains to avoid imposing their religion on subordinates.

“The more senior the individual, the more likely that personal expressions may be perceived to be official statements,” notes the document. “The more senior the leader, the more responsibility he or she has to send the message that we are a team based on trust, respect, and a common mission to defend our nation – and that what is expected of all our personnel is to live up to our oaths, embrace our shared Air Force core values, and do our duty.”

The guidelines also make it clear that chaplains have a duty to provide religious services as needed but that they must “respect the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs. They must be sensitive to those who do not welcome offerings of faith, as they are generous in sharing their faith with those who do.”

Americans United says the guidelines are not perfect. A section on the uses of “non-sectarian” prayer is vague, and the document spells out no sanctions for those who violate it. Still, AU welcomed the guidelines as an important step toward increasing religious tolerance in the military.

Americans United got involved in the issue of religious tolerance in the Air Force after Mikey Weinstein, an AU member in Albuquerque, brought the matter to the organization’s attention last spring. Weinstein’s son attends the Academy and had reported instances of anti-Semitism and official preference of evangelical Christianity. (See “Kingdom of Heaven?” June 2005 Church & State.)

To make sure the guidelines are followed, Air Force officials are requiring the Academy to develop a long-range plan for incorporating the guidelines into its training programs.

Some critics say the Academy is still experiencing problems. In early Septem­ber, a team from Yale Divinity School said it found problems among the chaplains at the institution.

Air Force officials had asked the Yale team to report on how chaplains serve the student body. The Rev. Kristen Leslie, who led the team, said some activities by the chaplains seem to run counter to the Academy’s goal of encouraging religious pluralism.

“These inconsistencies confuse expectations and may encourage inappropriate pastoral reactions,” the report said. Leslie also complained that her team was not given full access to the chaplains.

In other news about the Academy:

• A controversial general who was accused of inappropriately spreading his personal religious views at the Academy has been cleared for promotion.

Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, the commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy, has been accused of coercive forms of religious proselytizing. In early September, the Air Force dismissed complaints against Weida, although it acknow­ledged in a press release that some of his actions had been inappropriate.

“Gen. Weida has readily acknowledged that his actions were inappropriate and has taken positive, visible corrective actions that reflect his true character,” Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Stephens said.