In its efforts to create an environment free of religious harassment at its installations worldwide, the U.S. Air Force has said that it is withdrawing and reviewing earlier ethics guidelines permitting evangelism by chaplains.
The earlier guidelines, contained in a January code of ethics statement issued by the Air Force Chaplain Service, stated: "I will not actively proselytize from other religious bodies. However, I retain the right to instruct and/or evangelize those who are not affiliated."
Air Force officials are concerned that such openness to evangelism contradicts new interim guidelines on religion that were created in the wake of recurring complaints that evangelicals at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs had overstepped their bounds and promoted their own beliefs too aggressively at the installation.
"The Chaplain Service code of ethics was withdrawn for further study on August 10, 2005, as part of the Air Force's overall consideration of the interim religious guidelines," said Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Stephens. "We expect a code of ethics will be reissued when that process is complete."
But observers say the Air Force is going too far.
"There is no question the commanders should be sensitive to the religious needs and feelings of all members," says Jerry White, a retired major general in the Air Force reserve who once taught at the academy and now serves as president emeritus of the Navigators, a Colorado Springs-based organization with a global military ministry.
"It is all too easy to characterize all religious interactions as proselytizing," says White, "and to restrict the discussion of religious matters between individuals is an infringement of basic free speech and First Amendment rights."
Others say the new Air Force guidelines, which are scheduled to be finalized November 1, will invite the same kinds of legal challenges that have been brought by Navy chaplains.
"They're inviting a court challenge," says Vienna, Virginia, attorney Arthur Schulcz, who is handling four cases involving hundreds of Navy chaplains who claim military guidelines restrict their freedoms.
But the Air Force is already experiencing a court challenge from Air Force Academy graduate Mikey Weinstein, who alleges "severe, systemic, and pervasive" religious discrimination at the school. Weinstein has said he will drop the suit if the Air Force enacts a full ban on evangelism.
Weinstein's lawyer told members of the media that he is seeking a policy that would forbid all Air Force members, including chaplains, from "in any way attempt[ing] to involuntarily convert, pressure, exert, or persuade a fellow member of the USAF to accept their own religious beliefs while on duty."
In response to the suit and to the Air Force's withdrawal of its policy allowing chaplain evangelism, 69 members of Congress have signed a letter asking President Bush to issue an executive order protecting free speech for military chaplains.
"Military chaplains don't represent the government, they represent their denominations," says Schulcz. "And as soon as the government says you cannot say 'X,' it is violating the Constitution's establishment, free speech, and free exercise clauses."
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