Chaplains: Air Force prayer rules nothing new
RAF MILDENHALL, England — New Air Force guidelines limiting prayer in settings such as staff meetings and sports events will have little effect on bases in Europe, commanders and chaplains across the European theater said.
Responding to complaints of religious harassment at the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Air Force issued guidelines Aug. 29 saying that prayer “should not usually be included in official settings such as staff meetings, office meetings, classes, or officially sanctioned activities such as sports events or practice sessions.” The interim guidelines are expected to be finalized in November.
The policy allowed for exceptions for “extraordinary circumstances,” which was not defined, and emphasized that nonsectarian prayers at special events such as promotions and change-of-command ceremonies were still allowed.
Leaders at five Air Force bases in Europe said prayers were not a regular part of official settings such as staff meetings anyway, so they saw little change in how things will work.
“I really don’t see it as much of a change at all,” said Chaplain (Col.) Carl Andrews, command chaplain for U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
Andrews called the guidelines a “clarification” of rules he and others have followed for years.
Chaplains and commanders across Europe agreed, saying that prayers were not part of wing staff meetings. They said prayer at lower-level staff meetings probably did not happen and would be rare if it did.
Similarly, David Ruderman, spokesman for Department of Defense Dependents Schools in Europe, said the school system did not promote religion.
“In all the time I’ve been to DODDS sporting events, I’ve never heard a prayer being offered,” Ruderman said. “I just don’t think it’s a part of academics at all.”
At RAF Mildenhall in England, Col. Michael Stough, commander of the 100th Air Refueling Wing, said he debated whether to incorporate a prayer in his weekly meetings when he took command in June. He invited a chaplain to offer a prayer at his group meetings in his last post, but he decided that an inspirational thought was more appropriate in Mildenhall because of the religious diversity there, he said.
Now, that decision would be easier, Stough said, because the Air Force has clearly stated that prayer should not be included in meetings.
At Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, Col. Dave Goldfein, commander of the 52nd Fighter Wing, said he did not consider including prayer in meetings because it has not been a part of meetings in his other positions.
“It was pretty much a no-brainer,” Goldfein said. “We’re all a product of our experiences. We tend to emulate those that we followed in the past.”
At the same time, Goldfein said, he has made an active effort to build the spiritual strength of airmen at his base without incorporating religion.
“Our job is to inspire people to do more than they thought they were capable of doing, and quite often that comes from their spiritual strength,” Goldfein said. “And that spiritual strength comes from many ways other than their religion.”
Chaplain (Col.) Richard Elliott, chaplain of the 435th Air Base Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, said he does not offer a prayer at weekly meetings because the commander has not requested one. But, he said, the guidelines offer flexibility to allow prayers when they are appropriate.
“There’s some wiggle room there that allows us to meet the needs of the commander and respect the beliefs of the audience,” Elliott said.
During a Tuesday visit to Ramstein, Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Charles C. Baldwin, chief of the Air Force Chaplain Service, said the policy will protect airmen from unwanted religious pressure from leaders.
“You would never use your position of authority to insist that your subordinate be like you,” said Baldwin, who said he is a Baptist.
Baldwin emphasized that the policy is not meant to distance airmen from their religious affiliations or to restrict private worship.
“You may practice your faith in the military,” he said. “We will not take it away.”
Tech. Sgt. April Shake, 35, a member of Detachment 319 in Vogelweh, Germany, said she never felt any religious pressure in the Air Force.
“I’ve never seen anybody force a religion on anybody,” said the 13-year servicemember. “I’ve never been in a staff meeting where there was prayer. I can’t even imagine that.”
Andrews, the top USAFE chaplain, said he thought the biggest effect of the guidelines would be to get people talking about the issue of religious sensitivity, which he said he welcomed.
Chaplain (Capt.) Hamza Al-Mubarak, a Muslim imam at Ramstein Air Base, said he feels the policy will allow him more opportunities for prayer, as he can join in nonsectarian prayers that are consistent with his faith.
“For me,” he said, “it preserves the integrity of my faith.”
Reporter Anita Powell contributed to this report.
New Air Force guidelines on public prayer