The Air Force issued new religion guidelines to its commanders yesterday that caution against promoting any particular faith – or even “the idea of religion over nonreligion” – in official communications or functions like meetings, sports events and ceremonies.
The guidelines discourage public prayers at official Air Force events or meetings other than worship services, one of the most contentious issues for many commanders. But they allow for “a brief nonsectarian prayer” at special ceremonies like those honoring promotions, or in “extraordinary circumstances” like “mass casualties, preparation for imminent combat and natural disasters.”
The Air Force developed the guidelines after complaints from cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs that evangelical Christians leaders were using their positions to promote their faith.
The guidelines apply not just to the academy, but also to the entire Air Force. They will be made final later this year after Air Force generals meet and consider recommendations from their commanders.
“We support free exercise of religion, but we do not push religion,” said Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, a Navy veteran who was hired this year as a special assistant to the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force, and who helped write the guidelines. “I think many of the people I spoke to maybe should have known this already, but they were operating based on misperceptions.”
Rabbi Resnicoff said some Air Force members he had spoken with “mistakenly assumed” that because the military encouraged “spiritual strength as a pillar of leadership,” they were given license to promote strong belief in Christianity within it.
Again, the idea that a single version of religion could be forced upon cadets at the academy and airmen servicewide was an untenable status quo. This seems to be an appropriate clarification of guidelines. The new guidelines can be found in part here, and include the following:
— We are sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. In taking this oath we pledge our personal compliance with the Constitution’s protections for free exercise of religion and prohibitions against governmental establishment of religion.
— We will accommodate free exercise of religion and other personal beliefs, as well as freedom of expression, except as must be limited by military necessity. We will not officially endorse or establish religion — either one specific religion, or the idea of religion over nonreligion.
— Our core values support and are consistent with our constitutional obligations. Our integrity demands that we respect others and that we live up to our oaths. Service before self demands respect for the Constitution, our Air Force and each other, and an understanding that in the military our service begins with a commitment to our responsibilities, not only our rights. Commitment to a climate in which individuals of diverse beliefs form an effective team is essential to achieving excellence.
— Chaplain service programs are the responsibility of commanders. Chaplains function as staff officers when advising commanders in regard to the free exercise of religion, and they implement programs of religious support and pastoral care to help commanders care for the welfare of all their people.
— Supervisors, commanders and leaders at every level bear a special responsibility to ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed as either official endorsement or disapproval of the decisions of individuals to hold particular religious beliefs or to hold no religious beliefs.
— Abuse or disrespect of our wingmen — our fellow Air Force people — including disrespect based on religious beliefs, or the absence of religious beliefs, is unacceptable.
— We will recognize and value the many heritages, cultures and beliefs represented among us, and build a team by stressing our common Air Force heritage: the oaths we took, the core values that we embrace, and the mission that we undertake to protect our nation.
— At a time when many nations are torn apart by religious strife, we must understand that our ability to stand together as Americans and as Airmen — those who represent many religions, shoulder-to-shoulder with those who claim no religion — is part of our heritage and our strength.
People are free to worship as they choose, and people are free not to worship if they choose. The way it should be.