The Air Force's revised regulations governing religious expression contain a new clause guaranteeing airmen "the right to individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs."
The revision to Air Force Instruction 1-1 was approved Nov. 7, and the Air Force said the revisions will "clarify guidance for how commanders should handle religious accommodation requests or when airmen's rights to free exercise are questioned."
Mike Berry, senior counsel and director of military affairs for the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports religious freedom, said in a Nov. 13 interview that the change brings the Air Force in line with Defense Department instruction 1300.17. Under the new rule, Berry said, the Air Force will only be able to deny an airmen the right to exercise his beliefs if there is a compelling government interest.
"The key is setting [free expression] as the default," Berry said. "In the previous version, the way that people interpreted it was overly cautious, or restrictive. What this does is reverse the playing field. It might be subtle, but it's a very important decision."
In a Nov. 10 release from the Liberty Institute, Berry called the revision "an important step in the right direction for people of faith serving in the Air Force."
"Before these changes, the Air Force had the most problematic policy regarding religious accommodation for its members," Berry said. "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 new clause reads, in full, "Every airman also has the right to individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs, to include conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs, unless those expressions would have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety, or mission accomplishment."
That sentence differs from a draft version of the rule in a key way. The draft — circulated earlier this year by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for separation of church and state in the military — would have only prohibited those expressions if they "would have a real, not hypothetical, adverse impact."
In a June 6 letter to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, MRFF President Mikey Weinstein said that the "real, not hypothetical" language would open the door to discrimination and unwanted proselytization in the Air Force. Weinstein feared that, under the proposed rule, an airman would have been 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 those expressions would have only been prohibited if they had a "real, not hypothetical adverse impact," Weinstein said the draft rule would have set an impossibly high bar for airmen who wish to complain about such statements.
Berry said removing the "real, not hypothetical" language potentially weakens the revised regulation, and the Liberty Institute would have preferred it remain. But Berry said his group is still happy with the changes.
"It certainly doesn't destroy the underlying principle that religious freedom will be protected in the military, but it's unfortunate that language was removed, because that would have been even stronger than the current language," Berry said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.