Seeking to curb a climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy that several cadets have said is intolerant of non-Christians, the Air Force offered new guidelines Monday that discourage public prayer -- disappointing critics who had sought an outright ban.
“Public prayer should not usually be included in official settings such as staff meetings, office meetings, classes or officially sanctioned activities,” the new interim policy says.
But it notes that prayer can be beneficial under “extraordinary circumstances” such as “mass casualties, preparation for imminent combat or natural disasters” and allows nonsectarian prayers in “non-routine” military activities, such as change-of-command and promotion ceremonies.
Air Force officials hope that the interim rules, to be succeeded by a more detailed, permanent policy after senior Air Force officials meet in November, will put to rest concerns that arose after an investigation, completed in June, determined that non-Christians at the academy had been subjected to religious slurs, jokes and disparaging remarks.
“Our responsibility to the Constitution requires that we not officially endorse or establish religion -- either one specific religion, or the idea of religion over non-religion -- as the only way or the best way to build strength or serve our nation,” Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady, Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel, said in a statement.
But critics contend that the new guidelines allow unconstitutional mingling of religion and public policy.
“These interim guidelines are too permissive and they will only create problems. There is no need to have a prayer at a promotion ceremony,” said Eugene R. Fidell, a Washington-based lawyer and president of the National Institute of Military Justice.
The report on the investigation into religious insensitivity at the Colorado Springs, Colo., school noted that in July 2004, an Air Force chaplain had exhorted cadets to ask classmates about their religious backgrounds and to warn non-Christians that they would “burn eternally in hell.”
That probe concluded that intolerant acts toward non-Christian cadets had indeed taken place and said that Christian professors had used their positions as officers and authority figures to promote their faith.
But the investigators contended that the instances of religious intolerance were more misguided than malicious, and blamed a lack of guidelines defining improper religious expression.
The Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State had leveled charges of religious intolerance at the academy in a report this spring and notified Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of a possible lawsuit.
The organization said it intervened after receiving calls from dozens of cadets who described instances of religious intimidation by Christians.
Spokesman Rob Boston called the interim rules a “useful first step” but said they appeared to lack any means of enforcement and encouraged further problems by allowing nonsectarian prayers.
Other critics found little reason for optimism.
Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 academy graduate with two sons and a daughter-in-law who have attended the academy, said he gave the Air Force a chance to fix its religious guidelines.
His son Curtis, an academy junior, has complained of anti-Jewish slurs; Weinstein said the new rules leave him with no alternative but to file a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination.
“It’s a declaration of war, as far as I’m concerned, on the Constitution,” Weinstein said. “I hope everybody comprehensively and joyously celebrates whatever religion that they want -- or no religion -- but they cannot engage the machinery of the state.”
The accusations of religious intolerance came as the academy continued to deal with another scandal, involving sexual issues.
In December, an internal Pentagon review concluded that top officials had created a culture over the previous decade that allowed sexual assaults at the academy to go unreported and unpunished.