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Congressman: Air Force overemphasizes religious neutrality

May. 29, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., wants to repeal a directive from former Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz that cautions commanders against the appearance of using their positions to promote their religious beliefs.
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., wants to repeal a directive from former Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz that cautions commanders against the appearance of using their positions to promote their religious beliefs. (Staff)
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Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., is pushing the Air Force to weaken its rules requiring religious neutrality, drawing strong objections from a leading activist for separation of church and state in the military.

In a May 6 letter to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, Forbes outlined his proposed changes to the religious language in AFI 1-1. Forbes said the current language “places a disproportionate emphasis on religious neutrality over the protection of religious expression by addressing neutrality first.”

Because the Air Force’s language emphasizes neutrality, Forbes said, “the policy creates an artificial gray area for religious expression that results in a chilling effect and provides a foothold for a heckler’s veto.”

Part of Forbes’ proposed change would tell leaders to “avoid the actual use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion.” The current AFI requires leaders to also avoid the “apparent use of their position” to promote religion.

Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, strongly objected to Forbes’ proposed changes in a May 29 letter to Welsh. Striking the word “apparent” from the AFI would provide commanders and supervisors an effective authorization to promote their religious beliefs, or plausible deniability for having done so.

The proposed change “is nothing less than a blatant attempt to open wide the door to allow USAF commanders and supervisors, and their surrogates at the commanders’ direction or suggestion, to further the commanders’ and supervisors’ parochial religious beliefs and affiliations,” Weinstein wrote. “This suggested new language by Congressman Forbes will cause airmen to seriously doubt their commanders’ and supervisors’ impartiality in grading their performance, and as a consequence, deleteriously degrade unit cohesion, morale, good order and discipline.”

Forbes’ proposed language makes the neutrality language secondary to the guarantee of free exercise of religion, which he said “properly reflects both the fact that religious freedom is a right that receives special protection under the Constitution and the reality that most expressions of faith will strengthen the military rather than divide it.”

That language, which is currently titled “Government Neutrality Regarding Religion,” would also be retitled “Maintaining Good Order and Discipline” under Forbes’ proposed changes. This, Forbes said, would clarify that “the standard of good order and discipline” would be the guideline for deciding when an airman’s religious expression has gone too far.

And Forbes said the changes “retain the requirement that leaders at all levels must be impartial and objective without implying that the mere expression of their own faith in an appropriate manner could jeopardize their impartiality.”

Those changes “remove the foothold for a heckler’s veto to an expression of faith by clarifying that commanders need not hide their faith to remain impartial, and by reinforcing that ultimate discretion lies with the commanders.”

Weinstein disagreed with Forbes’ argument that current religious neutrality rules allow a “heckler’s veto,” and said Forbes misuses the term.

Weinstein said the Air Force’s current rules are necessary and discourage leaders from directly or indirectly proselytizing to their subordinates.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with this prohibition and everything right with its legitimate necessity,” Weinstein wrote. “The Air Force needs to remain comprehensively inclusive of all its diverse citizenry and constituency. The U.S. Constitution specifically prohibits the use of any ‘religious test’ under these precise circumstances.”

Weinstein also objected to a sentence in Forbes’ proposed language that reads, “No expression of faith should be directly prejudicial to good order and discipline.”

The qualifying word “directly” would “raise a new and far more troubling ambiguity,” Weinstein said. It could be viewed as authorizing airmen to subtly proselytize to other airmen, he said.

Weinstein urged Welsh to leave the AFI’s religious language unchanged.

“Military members have been asked time and again to make many painful sacrifices while they serve our nation,” Weinstein wrote. “They should NEVER have to sacrifice their personal religious beliefs (or lack of such beliefs) or be forced to even suspect that their commander or supervisor asks them to sacrifice their religious affiliation in the name of becoming a better, or more valued, airman.”

In his letter, Forbes thanked Welsh for allowing him to address Air Force leadership at a Religious Freedoms Focus Day on April 28.

Weinstein objected that Air Force leadership apparently only heard one side of the argument over religious rules in the service.

“I most assuredly hope that someone distinctly and robustly representing the other side of this turbulent, church-state separation debate, was invited to speak as well,” Weinstein wrote. “Sadly, I have not heard that such was the case.”

Forbes also called for revoking, or revising and reissuing, former Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz’s Sept. 1, 2011, memo titled “Maintaining Government Neutrality Regarding Religion.” Forbes said Schwartz’s memo contains language that would be made obsolete if his changes were adopted.

When asked for comment on Forbes’ letter, the Air Force issued a statement reading, “Air Force chaplains, lawyers and other senior leaders held a Religious Freedom Focus Day recently 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.”

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