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Congressmen urge Bush to protect chaplains’ religious liberty

WASHINGTON (BP)–Members of Congress are calling on President Bush to preserve the religious freedom of chaplains in the armed services.

Senators and representatives, led by Rep. Walter Jones, R.-N.C., wrote the president asking him to issue an executive order protecting the “right of military chaplains to pray according to their faith.” The 71 representatives and two senators said in the letter they had learned in all the military branches “it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christian chaplains to use the name of Jesus when praying.”

The lawmakers focused most of their attention on guidelines recently proposed for Air Force chaplains, describing them as restrictive and suppressive. They also expressed concern that the guidelines, if adopted, might be implemented in the other branches of the armed services.

Six days after Jones sent his letter, Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., wrote Bush Oct. 31 requesting he review the Air Force’s interim guidelines and seek to make sure all military directives for chaplains “truly protect free exercise of religion.”

Jones and his colleagues told the president, “The current demand in the guidelines for so-called ‘non-sectarian’ prayers is merely a euphemism declaring that prayers will be acceptable only so long as they censor Christian beliefs.

“While some military members may find certain prayers to be offensive and wrongly claim that they are not non-pluralistic, we believe these restrictions raise constitutional issues involving the establishment, free exercise [of religion] and free speech clauses of the First Amendment,” the members of Congress said in the letter. “Officially inhibiting or defining what chaplains can and cannot say in effect establishes an official religion and burdens our military’s chaplains’ right of free speech.”

Brownback echoed Jones and the others in expressing concern about a provision in the proposed guidelines apparently limiting Air Force members’ discussions on religious faith to peers. Another section seems to restrict “how, when and where” chaplains and other Air Force members may pray publicly, he said.

“These regulations against chaplains’ activities particularly raise warning signals because chaplains have a responsibility to care for the spiritual well-being of the entire Air Force,” Brownback wrote in his letter to Bush. “Dictating how they pray and approach religious discussion not only hampers this task, but is also government interference in the conduct of religious exercise of clergy.”

The Air Force’s interim, or proposed, guidelines include the following provisions:

— Public prayer, outside of worship services, “should not usually be included in official settings,” such as staff meetings and sporting events.

— Short, “non-sectarian” prayers may be part of “non-routine” ceremonies, including changes of command and promotions.

— On matters of sharing their faith, members need in official settings “to be sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official expressions,” especially around subordinates.

— Individuals are not limited by the guidelines from “voluntary, peer to peer discussions.”

— Chaplains “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.”

— Chaplains also “should respect professional settings where mandatory participation may make expressions of religious faith inappropriate.”

The interim guidelines do not include a statement on evangelism included in the Code of Ethics issued only in January by the Air Force Chaplain Service. That document said of a chaplain, “I will not actively proselytize from other religious bodies. However, I retain the right to instruct and/or evangelize those who are not affiliated.”

The Air Force withdrew that code Aug. 10 and issued the interim guidelines Aug. 29.

The Air Force expects to issue a new code after it completes its work on the interim guidelines, Capt. David Small, an Air Force spokesman, told Baptist Press. Input on the guidelines has been solicited from Congress, as well as people and organizations outside the government, he said. Focus groups within the Air Force also have provided comments on the guidelines, Small said.

“We appreciate the comments we’ve received and are being very diligent in giving them serious consideration,” Small said.

The withdrawal of the Code of Ethics in August had nothing to do with an early October lawsuit filed against the Air Force, since it occurred nearly two months prior, Small said.

Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the Air Force Academy, filed suit Oct. 6 in federal court in New Mexico, asking for the following policy to be instituted: “No member of the USAF, including a chaplain, is permitted to evangelize, proselytize or in any related way attempt to involuntarily convert, pressure, exhort or persuade a fellow member of the USAF to accept their own religious beliefs while on duty.”

The Alliance Defense Fund filed a motion Nov. 7 to intervene in the suit to protect the interests of two Air Force officers, Maj. James Glass, a chaplain, and Capt. Karl Palmberg, an F-16 pilot. “After over five years of service and over 500 F-16 flying hours both overseas and at home, I consider my constitutional right to discuss my faith without censorship or fear of retribution as valuable to the military and the future of our nation as the aircraft, bombs and bullets I am trained to employ,” Palmberg said in a written release.

The Air Force’s withdrawal of its Code of Ethics related to chaplains followed highly publicized charges by academy cadets of being pressured by evangelical Christians among the staff, faculty and student body.

The Air Force’s interim guidelines may be accessed online at http://www.af.mil/library/guidelines.pdf.