Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Flying Low on Air Force Guidelines - NY Jewish Week

Flying Low On Air Force Guidelines
Jewish groups are working to ensure new rules maximize religious freedom, but not everyone is happy about it.

James D. Besser/Washington - Washington Correspondent

Jewish leaders remain divided and uncertain over new Air Force policies on religious freedom and the chaplaincy. But for now, at least, mainstream leaders have decided to play along with the Pentagon and hope for the best.

Last week the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism wrote a joint letter to a top Air Force official with recommendations for implementing the recently issued Guidelines on the Free Exercise of Religion in the Military.

Those guidelines were revised after an earlier, more detailed draft generated outrage and threats from conservative Republicans in the House, who argued that its provisions would prevent Christian chaplains from praying according to their sectarian beliefs.

Privately, several Jewish leaders said the revised guidelines, which focus more on protecting the religious rights of chaplains and less on prohibiting officers from using their power to evangelize subordinates, were a step backward in a military establishment rife with religious coercion.

But publicly, most insist they are ready to work with the Air Force to ensure that the new guidelines are implemented in ways that maximize religious freedom.

“Our perspective is that the Air Force has been trying all along to deal with a complex issue in good faith,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director for the AJCommittee.

The latest guidelines are “in some ways not as clear on certain sensitive issues as the original guidelines, but nevertheless we thought they were an advance from the situation we had a year ago,” he said. “They do make it clear that there are lines that cannot be crossed regarding religious speech involving a superior officer.”

And he said the new guidelines represent an “appropriate compromise in terms of recognizing the free exercise rights of chaplains, and the role of chaplains in a pluralistic ministry.”

In the joint letter, the Jewish groups recommended that the Air Force use training materials on religious pluralism developed by Jewish groups, and that training programs “urge senior officers to refrain from discussing their religious beliefs with junior officers or enlisted men because of a concern that the discussion of religion will be perceived as inherently coercive by the junior servicemen.”

They also urged the Pentagon to “provide for a grievance and complaint procedure” that service personnel can use without fear of retribution.And the Jewish leaders urged the Air Force to “maintain limits on the ability of military chaplains to invoke particularistic prayers at mandatory service personnel assemblies”—something that was scrapped from the earlier draft guidelines.

But Mikey Weinstein, the Air Force Academy graduate who is suing the Air Force to stop religious coercion in the military, called that decision “appeasement” and said the most recent and final guidelines are “pathetic.”

“I’ve had it with Jewish groups,” he said, carving out an exception only for Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman, who he said has been “somewhat supportive” of his legal efforts.The administration, he said, has “turned the Marine Corps, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force into a faith-based initiative.”

Weinstein called the newest guidelines a “massive step back” for the military, undoing not just the earlier draft guidelines but longstanding procedures to ensure military chaplains can serve both their co-religionists and military personnel representing a broader religious spectrum.

“It basically states that it’s OK for members of the military to proselytize or evangelize junior members, as long as it’s done with sensitivity and non-coerciveness,” he said.

But such non-coercive proselytization is impossible in a military environment defined by the “Draconian specter of command influence that you don’t find if you work at a Starbucks or Walgreens,” he said.The ADL’s Abraham Foxman disagreed, saying that for now, at least, “let’s deal with implementation. And six months from now, if our efforts don’t meet with sensitivity and openness, then we may have to revert to political pressure.”


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