Air Force Releases Prayer Guidelines

The Air Force (search) released new guidelines for religious tolerance Monday that discourage public prayer at official functions and urge commanders to be sensitive about personal expressions of religious faith.

The document directs chaplains to "respect the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs." But some who have criticized the academy questioned whether needed changes will really be implemented.

The guidelines, which apply to the entire Air Force, were drawn up after allegations that evangelical Christians wield so much influence at the Air Force Academy (search) in Colorado Springs that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment have become pervasive.

An Air Force task force concluded that some students and staff at the school have the perception that the academy favors evangelical Christians and is intolerant of those who do not share their faith.

Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (search), and Abraham Foxman, head of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League (search), both said the big question now is how the rules will be implemented.

The guidelines "say all the right things," Foxman said. "They address all the issues that were raised as problems at the Air Force Academy. The major question is, how will be they become a reality? A lot of the people implementing this are the people who violated it."

Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate who says his sons have been the target of anti-Semitic slurs at the school, said the new guidelines fail to control evangelical zealots.

"The Air Force's official policy remains that the Air Force reserves the right to evangelize anyone in the Air Force that it determines to be unchurched," Weinstein said in an interview from his home in Albuquerque, N.M.

The guidelines do not ban public prayer outright and say short, nonsectarian prayers may be included in special ceremonies or events, but only to lend a sense of solemnity and not to promote specific beliefs.

Nor do they bar personal discussions of religion, including discussions between commanders and subordinates. They caution Air Force members "to be sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official expressions."

The guidelines state that members of the Air Force "will not officially endorse or establish religion, either one specific religion, or the idea of religion over non-religion."

They also say that "abuse or disrespect" of Air Force members based on their religious beliefs, or lack of such beliefs, is unacceptable.