The Air Force issued new religion guidelines to its commanders on Monday 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.
Two Congressional Democrats who had criticized the Air Force Academy, Representatives Steve Israel of New York and Lois Capps of California, cautiously welcomed the guidelines in a statement.
“It’s actually a refreshing acknowledgment by the Air Force that it had real problems that needed to be corrected,” Mr. Israel, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said later in an interview. “It’s a good step forward.”
But one outspoken critic, Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate from Albuquerque, said the guidelines meant nothing because the Air Force had refused to discipline officers who overstepped the boundaries.
“All this does is increase the level of confusion,” Mr. Weinstein said.
The guidelines try to balance the Constitutional requirement of free religious expression with limits on government endorsement of religion.
The guidelines say, “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.”
Commanders are reminded of the need to accommodate the rights of Air Force members to practice their religion, either with the clothes they wear or the foods they eat, or by having time off to attend worship services or to observe holy days.
Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady, Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel, said the military’s religious diversity was one of its strengths, “at a time when many nations are torn apart by religious strife.”
Marci Hamilton, a church-state scholar at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, said the guidelines gave commanders a lot of “wiggle room” to turn down requests from believers to accommodate their needs.
“Commanders can continue what they’ve been doing before, but what the Air Force is saying to them is, You need to be fair, and you need to appear fair,” said Professor Hamilton, the author of “God vs. the Gavel” (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Professor Hamilton said of the new guidelines, “What I liked about them is they went so far out of their way to say the government should not be endorsing religion, because that’s not always been true in the military.”