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AF drafts instruction to weaken limits on religious expression

Jun. 6, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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The Air Force is considering weakening its limitations on expressions of religious belief, and a leading critic says the service’s proposed rules could leave little recourse for airmen who feel they are being improperly proselytized to.

Air Force Instruction 1-1 currently orders airmen to “avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion.” It also says that “airmen, especially commanders and supervisors, must ensure that in exercising their right of religious free expression, they do not degrade morale, good order and discipline in the Air Force.”

But proposed language revising AFI 1-1 — provided to Air Force Times by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which advocates for separation of church and state in the military — drops that language and instead reads “expression of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) shall not be prohibited unless the expression would have a real, not hypothetical, adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, health and safety, and mission accomplishment.”

In a June 6 letter to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, MRFF President Mikey Weinstein said that the language opens the door to discrimination and unwanted proselytization in the Air Force.

Weinstein fears that, under the proposed rule, an airman would be allowed to express disdain or disgust for a fellow airman who is gay, lesbian or bisexual, as long as those opinions stem from “sincerely held” religious beliefs. Because such expressions would only be prohibited if they “have a real, not hypothetical adverse impact,” Weinstein said the proposed rule would set an impossibly high bar for airmen who wish to complain about such prejudicial statements.

“This policy, if adopted by the USAF, will universally discourage military members from ever filing complaints about religious witnessing and proselytizing for fear that their uncorroborated complaints will be considered merely ‘hypothetical,’ and not ‘real,’ ” Weinstein wrote. “The Department of Defense would never adopt such a similar shocking policy shielding abusers regarding sexual assault, sexual harassment and racial discrimination.”

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Weinstein also objects to language that prohibits expressions that hurt “military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, health and safety, and mission accomplishment.” Because the language concludes with the phrase “and mission accomplishment,” it implies that all five of those factors must be adversely affected before religious expressions can be limited. That is, if an expression is viewed to have hurt military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, and mission accomplishment, but does not affect a unit’s health and safety, it could be permitted, Weinstein said.

The Air Force should at least change the last “and” in that phrase to “or,” Weinstein said, to ensure that if even one of those factors is hurt, the religious expression should be prohibited.

Weinstein also objects to a clause in the proposed language that says “an airman’s expression of sincerely held beliefs may not be used as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination or denial of promotion, schooling, training or assignment.” The language barring adverse personnel actions could preclude an airman from being held responsible for speech disparaging to gay, lesbian or bisexual airmen, if the speech stems from “sincerely held beliefs,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein feels the Air Force’s current rules should not be changed. He said the current rules are necessary and discourage leaders from directly or indirectly proselytizing to their subordinates.

The Air Force is getting pressure to change its rules governing religious expression. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., sent a letter to Welsh on May 6 outlining his proposed changes that would weaken current rules requiring religious neutrality. Forbes said the current language “places a disproportionate emphasis on religious neutrality over the protection of religious expression by addressing neutrality first” and “creates an artificial gray area for religious expression that results in a chilling effect and provides a foothold for a heckler’s veto.”

Weinstein’s group strongly opposes Forbes’ proposed changes.

The Air Force and the academy would not comment specifically on possible changes to its rules.

“Air Force chaplains, lawyers and other senior leaders held a Religious Freedom Focus Day to review current implementing instructions, guidance and training materials related to the free exercise of religion to determine whether they should be clarified or otherwise improved,” the Air Force said in a statement.

Weinstein said the Air Force sent the proposed changes to leaders of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for their comments. Weinstein’s group has frequently criticized the academy and said it does not maintain a proper separation of church and state.

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