Academy incidents lead to AF guide on religious tolerance

Critics question whether policies go far enough

August 30, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Seeking to curb a climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy that some cadets have said is intolerant of non-Christians, the Air Force offered new guidelines yesterday 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." It allows nonsectarian prayers in "non-routine" military activities, such as change-of-command and promotion ceremonies.

Air Force officials hope 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 in Colorado Springs, Colo., had been subjected to religious slurs, jokes and disparaging remarks.

"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 expert on military law.

The report on the investigation at the academy noted that in July 2004, an Air Force chaplain exhorted cadets to ask classmates about their religious backgrounds and to warn non-Christians 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.

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