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Jews On First!

... because if Jews don't speak out, they'll think we don't mind

Jewish Organizations in Dialogue with Air Force on Chaplain Guidelines

Four organizations submit recommendations for fostering religious tolerance

by JewsOnFirst.org, June 22, 2006

Links to the articles and documents cited in our report that are not in the report immediately follow it.

Four major Jewish organizations have responded to an Air Force invitation for input on the development of a training program to implement guidelines on religion. Their letter, sent June 13th, is the latest development in the struggle over religious coercion by right-wing Christian evangelicals at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. The Jewish leaders have limited power to shape change at the academy, but they are optimistic.

The invitation and the Jewish response, the outgrowth of an April meeting between Jewish leaders and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, indicates that "the leadership of the Air Force gets it," said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel of the American Jewish Committee. In addition to the committee, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League signed the letter.

The Air Force leadership, Foltin told JewsOnFirst, has committed itself to creating a situation in which higher ranking officers never give their subordinates "the sense that their future careers depend on their religious perspective."

Pluralists contend with religious right
Over the past year since the exposure of religious intolerance and anti-Semitism at the Air Force Academy, Jewish and Christian advocates of pluralsim have contended with right-wing evangelical Christians to influence how the Air Force addresses the situation.

Three times, the Christocrats have prevailed. Last June they denounced -- and derailed -- Democratic calls for Congress to instruct the Secretary of the Air Force to develop a plan to address "coercive and abusive religious proselytizing" at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Last August, the Air Force issued guidelines for its chaplains that would have clamped down on religious coercion by officers and senior cadets at the Air Force Academy. Religious right organizations mounted a major campaign for the "right" of chaplains to "pray according to their faith" -- code for sectarian prayers to Jesus -- at mandatory official occasions.

Congress and the White House responded to the religious right and, as a result, the Air Force issued revised guidelines in February which gave chaplains the "religious freedom" to deliver sectarian prayers at events where attendance is mandatory.

This May, congressional Republicans killed an amendment to the military authorization bill that would have required military chaplains to show greater sensitivity to minority faiths.

Civil liberties organizations denounced the February guidelines. But Jewish organizations, with the exception of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), "welcomed" them.

"Jewish organizations said the original [August] guidelines were better," said Foltin of the American Jewish Committee. "We preferred the specificity and detail."

Jewish organizations between opposing forces
The organizations are caught between the Republican government and Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate who is suing the Air Force to make it change its policy. He is also running a public campaign for more stringent controls on religious activity in the Air Force. He sees little of value in the February guidelines.

Weinstein told the New York Jewish Week, “I’ve had it with Jewish groups,” with the exception of ADL director Abraham Foxman, whom he called “somewhat supportive” of his lawsuit.

Last week the Jewish Telegraphic Agency quoted the director of the ADL and Foltin characterizing as "good cop-bad cop" the contrast between their engagement with the Air Force and Weinstein's militant campaign. The JTA quoted Foxman saying that Weinstein has "certainly brought the issue very dramatically to the fore and for that we are all grateful. We’re giving the Air Force some slack, but there’s nothing wrong with suing — maybe it helps."

Weinstein, who recently organized the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told the Jewish Week that the Bush administration has “turned the Marine Corps, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force into a faith-based initiative.”

Prayer in official settings
In last week's letter, the organizations revisit the most contentious point of the February guidelines, which recognized the "right" of chaplains to promote their own religion to captive audiences.

...[W]e know that an important and indispensable, but for some, controversial, aspect of the Guidelines are the limits on the “right” of chaplains to pray as they see fit using particular or parochial forms, even at official events at which attendance is mandatory. We believe no such right exists, and if chaplains were to pray in particularistic fashion in the latter circumstances they would be violating the rights of their listeners.

The bulk of the letter, however, is devoted to very specific suggestions about the types of training materials that would best suit the Air Force's particular institutional needs -- most notably its hierarchical organization and "the group living and military rituals which are so crucial to the effective functioning of the military." The writers emphasize that it is urgent

to alert supervisors that whatever their intentions and perceptions, those they supervise (and rate) may perceive any discussion of religion by the supervisor as inherently coercive. The greater the gap between ranks, the greater the likelihood of this perception existing. At some point, the gap may be so great as to justify even a total ban onreligious speech. No matter what a three-star general or drill sergeant says to newly commissioned second lieutenants or recruits about the voluntariness of his endorsement of a particular religion, those hearing religious remarks from a person of such rank will not likely regard them as an invitation that can be refused.

In the letter, the organizations also advocate the use of "materials designed to introduce college and high school students to the problems of living and functioning in a diverse environment."

Measuring progress
According to Richard Foltin, there is no formal monitoring process of the training program in place. "But we all know how public [the situation at the Air Force Academy] became," he said. And if the guidelines are not implemented, "we're all going to hear about it."

He acknowledged that if the Air Force makes progress in implementing the guidelines, "it's probably going to draw criticism from those on the right."

"We will be watching carefully," he said.

Foltin would not comment on the prospects for a more Democratic Congress coming out of the November 2006 elections that would, presumably, not cater so readily to the religious right. The American Jewish Committee is a non-partisan organization, he said. "We take the House as it is."

Click here for the letter the four Jewish organizations sent to Gen. Allardice (a PDF document).

Jewish Groups Offer Recommendations on Religion to U.S. Air Force

News Release, American Jewish Committee, June 14, 2006

June 14, 2006 - New York - Leading national Jewish organizations have joined in submitting a series of recommendations to the U.S. Air Force to assist in implementing a training program for Air Force personnel pursuant to the recently issued Guidelines on the Free Exercise of Religion in the military.

In a letter sent to General Robert R. Allardice, Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower and Personnel, the Jewish groups commended the Air Force for the guidelines and the development of the training program. Both initiatives have substantially alleviated concerns that followed reports of religious proselytization and anti-Semitism at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

The letter was sent in response to Gen. Allardice's written request to the Jewish groups to share their views concerning training methods to implement the Guidelines. Continue

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, Jewish Week, June 23, 2006

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. Continue

Jewish father tackles proselytizing in the Air Force after sons’ harassment

By Ron Kampeas, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, June 15, 2006

WASHINGTON, June 15 (JTA) — Betrayal. Contagion. Oceans of blood. That’s Mikey Weinstein, describing the threat he believes the United States faces from the Christian evangelists he says are permeating the military. At least, that’s the printable Weinstein. And he says to expect more of the same in-your-face approach as his Military Religious Freedom Foundation picks up steam and continues to pursue lawsuits against the U.S. military. Continue

Amendment mandating chaplains’ sensitivity fails

By Bryant Jordan, Air Force Times, May 5, 2006

A New York congressman’s push to require that military chaplains exhibit greater sensitivity toward various faiths was defeated Thursday.

Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee — with the exception of Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan — voted against the amendment, offered by Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., to language inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2007.

The original language, added to the ’07 Defense Authorization Act by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., provides that "each chaplain shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain’s own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible."

But Israel asked lawmakers to amend the language, adding "that chaplains shall demonstrate sensitivity, respect and tolerance for all faiths present on each occasion at which prayers are offered." Click here for the report

Air Force leaders meet Jewish groups

Jewish Telegraphic Aency, April 10, 2006

U.S. Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne met with Jewish leaders and defended the revised guidelines for chaplain as a balance between free exercise of religion and non-favoritism for any particular religion. Click here