The Air Force approved an update to its rules governing religious expression Nov. 7.
In a release late Monday evening announcing the update, the Air Force said Air Force Instruction 1-1 has been changed in several places "to clarify guidance for how commanders should handle religious accommodation requests or when Airmen's rights to free exercise are questioned."
The Air Force also said chaplain corps officials clarified policy language to help commanders balance constitutional protections for their own religious expression or other personal beliefs, with the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion.
"We trust our commanders with the great responsibility of caring for our Airmen," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said in the release. "That includes Airmen's physical, mental, social and spiritual health. We owe them clear guidance on what their responsibilities and rights are to protect and care for their Airmen."
The update to AFI 1-1 has not yet been posted online or released publicly. A draft version of the revised rule -- provided to Air Force Times in June by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an organization that advocates for the separation of church and state in the military -- would weaken the regulations by dropping language that ordered 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 is unclear how closely the revised AFI 1-1 reflects changes in the June draft because the Air Force announced the changes before they were posted on the service's official e-publishing website. Government offices were closed Tuesday in observance of Veterans Day.
The draft proposed language would also dropped language that says "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."
The revised draft language instead only read "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 in a June letter to Welsh. "The Department of Defense would never adopt such a similar shocking policy shielding abusers regarding sexual assault, sexual harassment and racial discrimination."
The Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian organization a nonprofit organization that supports religious freedom, praised the change in a release Monday.
"This is an important step in the right direction for people of faith serving in the Air Force," said Mike Berry, the Liberty Institute's senior counsel and director of military affairs. "Before these changes, the Air Force had the most problematic policy regarding religious accommodation for its members. Now they have a policy that, in writing, protects religious freedom to a greater degree than previously. But only time will tell if this written policy is put into practice."
The changes stem from a "Religious Freedom Focus Day" the Air Force held earlier this year at Welsh's direction. Leaders of the Air Force's chaplain corps met to discuss the service's law and policy regarding religious freedom, the complaint process, and how to inform airmen about their rights.
Airmen who feel their leaders are not appropriately accommodating their religious expression, or who feel their leaders' behavior is infringing on the prohibition against governmental establishment of religion, should first try to resolve the conflict through their chain of command, James Carlock, the Air Force's equal opportunity director, said in the release.
Airmen should also be told about their rights to talk about their concerns with an equal opportunity adviser.
"We are committed to creating an environment in which airmen can realize their highest potential, regardless of their personal religious beliefs or lack of beliefs," Carlock said. "Taking care of our airmen is our number one concern."
The issue of religion has been extremely controversial in the Air Force, and critics say the service is unwelcoming to atheists and agnostics.
Most recently, an atheist airman was denied reenlistment in August for refusing to swear an oath containing the words "so help me God." After the American Humanist Association threatened to sue, the Air Force reversed itself and said it would allow the airman to reenlist.
And a scandal involving religious harassment and discrimination at the Air Force Academy that emerged in 2005 led the academy to establish a Religious Respect Program.
In a memo to all major commands in September 2011, then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz reminded "leaders at all levels" that they must avoid even the apparent use of their positions to promote their religious beliefs. Commanders "must refrain from appearing to official endorse religion generally or any particular religion," Schwartz wrote.
Updated rules to AFI 1-1 signed by the chief of staff 11 months later state that "all airmen are able to choose to practice their particular religion, or subscribe to no religious belief at all."
But some conservative lawmakers have said the rules go too far. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., sent a letter to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh May 6 asking him to loosen the rules requiring religious neutrality.