AIR FORCE TIMES – Congressman: Air Force overemphasizes religious neutrality

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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.”

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