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Jewish Journal

Air Force Flies New Tolerance Guidelines

by Matthew E. Berger

September 22, 2005 | 8:00 pm

Just in time for the High Holidays, U.S. Air Force officials are disseminating new guidelines for religious tolerance, in hopes of improving an atmosphere that some airmen say is unwelcoming to religious minorities.

However, while some are calling the new regulations a good first step, others remain concerned that little will change at the Air Force Academy and bases around the country.

The guidelines, issued last month by the Pentagon, say Air Force commanders should try to comply with religious accommodations, and need to be sensitive to the fact that personal expressions of faith might be viewed as official statements.

The new regulations come amid reports from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., that religious minorities felt pressure to prioritize their military duties over religious observance, and that they felt they were obliged to perform their duties in an overtly Christian atmosphere. Chaplains at the school reportedly spoke of evangelizing to the "unchurched," and the football coach made references to Jesus.

The new regulations are for the entire Air Force, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said recently that they could be replicated throughout the military.

"It's one piece of a broader initiative that will, I hope, allow for a real clarification of the real vision in the military," said Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a retired military chaplain who was hired by the Air Force in August to oversee implementation of "values and vision."

The regulations focus on the need for sensitivity toward people of all faiths or no faith. Chaplains are reminded that they're obligated to minister to people of other faiths and those without religion.

"They must be as sensitive to those who do not welcome offerings of faith, as they are generous in sharing their faith with those who do," the guidelines say. "In addition, they must remain sensitive to the responsibilities of superior rank, and they should respect professional settings where mandatory participation may make expressions of religious faith inappropriate."

Resnicoff said the message was clear to chaplains that they have to respect the rights of all in the military.

"A chaplain has to understand that he or she cannot do certain things as a chaplain that a clergy person can," he said. "We give power to people in uniform to accomplish a mission. We do not give them power to change the religious beliefs of others."

The guidelines say all requests for religious accommodation should be approved, unless precluded by military necessity, and commanders should try to avoid scheduling conflicts with major religious observances, including presumably the Jewish High Holidays, but also Muslim observances, as well. Public prayers are outlawed outside of volunteer worship services, but nonsectarian prayers are allowed during "nonroutine military ceremonies and events of special importance."

Resnicoff said the guidelines would be incorporated in all Air Force training, and he expects changes to be seen imminently. Already, he said, time has been set aside on Fridays and Saturdays for religious services. Previously, services were scheduled only on Sundays, and Jews and others had to seek special permission to attend services on other days.

Some members of the armed services are underwhelmed by the new guidelines. Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force veteran who has two children in the service, said he believes they contain "very nice language" but would do little to end religious hostilities at the academy -- which his son attends -- and elsewhere in the service.

"They're making this up as they go along," Weinstein said. "They're just pretty words that mean nothing."

He would like to see the Air Force Academy call on one chaplain to recant recent comments suggesting that he still intends to evangelize to the "unchurched."

Others are encouraged by the changes. Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, called the guidelines a "huge step forward."

"Given the opposition the Air Force takes to any restrictions, it is even a larger step forward," Stern said. "But there are some places where they have glossed over some problems."

The rules also were welcomed by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and by Reps. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who have been critical of the military on this issue.

"Obviously, the real test of these regulations will be their implementation," Capps said. "It is absolutely critical that the Air Force leadership ensure that these regulations are well understood and strictly enforced, especially at the Air Force Academy."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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