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Air Force Chaplain Policy Cited in Faith Bias Case

Guidelines that may have encouraged Christian evangelizing were rescinded in August, according to a lawyer for the service.

October 11, 2005|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Air Force until August provided guidelines to chaplains that officials believe may have encouraged them to aggressively advocate Christianity throughout the ranks, according to a letter written by a top military lawyer in a lawsuit over religious discrimination.

The Air Force for years has struggled to defend itself against charges of religious hostility and accusations that chaplains at the service's academy regularly proselytized non-Christian cadets.

Several former cadets, including non-Christians, have alleged that they were victims of religious discrimination at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Last week, a Jewish father of two academy cadets sued the Air Force, claiming that senior officers illegally tried to impose their Christian beliefs on others at the academy.

In a letter last week to a lawyer for the plaintiff, Air Force general counsel Mary L. Walker argued that the Air Force has no "existing policy" endorsing proselytizing or evangelizing.

But Walker acknowledged that in August the Air Force was forced to rescind guidelines for chaplains that she said may have led them to believe it was their role to push Christian beliefs.

In June, a Pentagon investigation found that Christian professors at the Air Force Academy used their positions to promote Christianity, and the probe documented instances of religious slurs, jokes and disparaging remarks directed at non-Christian cadets.

Yet the investigation found no "overt religious discrimination" at the school.

In August, the Air Force announced service-wide guidelines discouraging public prayer. But until now, Air Force officials had not identified a specific guideline as a possible cause of religious intolerance at the academy.

Walker's letter, obtained by The Times, said the rescinded guidelines were part of a "Chaplain Service document" that might have led some chaplains to believe they were permitted to evangelize. She said the document was "withdrawn from use" Aug. 10.

Walker gave no details about the rescinded guidelines. An Air Force spokesman declined to comment on the letter or the guidelines except to say the Air Force is "committed to defending the rights of all our men and women, whatever their beliefs."

Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, an academy graduate whose two sons have attended the school, charged religious discrimination in his suit last week.

In a telephone interview, Weinstein said he was "stunned" by Walker's letter and added that his lawyers intend to press the Air Force to provide the document mentioned in the letter as well as all official material pertaining to the mission of Air Force chaplains.

"We never knew there was anything even remotely close to being written down on this issue," said Weinstein, 50. "This is no small thing. It is a serious, serious issue."

Weinstein said his lawyer met with Air Force officials at the Pentagon for several hours last month and the officials did not bring up the rescinded guidance.

The guidelines adopted Aug. 29 stated that public prayer should not be included in events such as staff meetings, classes or other officially sanctioned activities.

Yet the rules state that prayer can be beneficial under "extraordinary circumstances" such as "mass casualties, preparation for imminent combat or natural disasters."

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