Jewish groups see setback as Air Force issues religious guidelines

By Matthew E. Berger, JTA

WASHINGTON — The Jewish community’s efforts to reform the Air Force Academy’s positions on religious tolerance and proselytizing were overmatched by the evangelical community, which fought any move to restrict religious discussion on campus, Jewish leaders are acknowledging.

The U.S. Air Force on Feb. 9 introduced revised guidelines on religious tolerance and practices at the academy, which has been accused of fostering a Christian environment on campus and allowing proselytizing by senior officers and cadets.

Some see the new guidelines as more permissive of religious discussion than were interim guidelines issued last August. Air Force officials admit that the guidelines were revised following an angry response from Christian groups and from 72 members of Congress who sent a letter to President Bush last month.

“We didn’t like what came out in August, but this is a public retreat from where they were before, ” said Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate who is suing the school for allegedly violating the constitutional separation of church and state.

Others, however, say the new guidelines do contribute toward ridding the military of religious intolerance.

Jewish leaders said more efforts are needed to counterbalance the evangelical Christian community.

“We have not galvanized Congress, but we will have to, ” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The Air Force Academy has been under scrutiny since reports surfaced of an overtly Christian environment that permitted Christian prayer and proselytizing by senior officers, and did not accommodate minority religious practices.

The new rules allow for public prayer, stating only that it “should not imply government endorsement of religion and should not usually be part of routine official business. “

The previous guidelines outlawed public prayer in official settings but allowed for a “brief non-sectarian prayer ” at special ceremonies or events.

The new guidelines also focus on reaffirming senior officers’ rights to free exercise of religion, while warning that superiors need to be “sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official, or have undue influence on their subordinates. “

“There is enough leeway in these guidelines to permit proselytizing, ” Foxman said.

Last August’s guidelines went further toward highlighting the need for sensitivity from senior officers.

“The more senior the individual, the more likely that personal expressions may be perceived to be official statements, ” the former guidelines read.

The new guidelines do note that chaplains are not required to participate in religious activities that are inconsistent with their faith.

Maj. Gen. Charles Baldwin, the Air Force’s chief of chaplains, told the Washington Post that the new guidelines came about as a result of criticism from evangelicals. Several organizations flooded administration officials with complaints, calling the August report a violation of freedoms of speech and religion.

More than 70 lawmakers petitioned President Bush to sign an executive order guaranteeing the right to pray “in Jesus’ name. “

A spokeswoman for the Air Force told JTA the guidelines had been augmented after feedback, especially where the “original language had been misunderstood. “

“After a reasonable amount of time, the secretary will likely deem this set of guidance as the final version, but the Air Force will need experience with how the guidelines work in practice before deciding on the finalization date, ” Jennifer Stephens wrote in response to JTA’s questions.

The Jewish community’s view on the new guidelines is not unanimous. The American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism issued a joint press release Feb. 9 commending the Air Force’s effort to address problems of religious accommodation.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, acknowledged that the August guidelines were “clearer and discussed the issues more effectively, ” but said even the new guidelines are an improvement from where the Air Force was a year ago.

“The old guidelines weren’t as clear on this stuff as people think they were, ” he said. “There are pieces of this that are stronger than before, and there are pieces that are worse. “

Saperstein said it’s important not to require chaplains to perform services that are contrary to their beliefs.

“I don’t think it bent on the core issues,” he said of the new guidelines.