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WASHINGTON — Members of Congress on Wednesday again called for a presidential order supporting the religious freedom of Christian military chaplains, labeling proposed Air Force guidelines on prayer “absolutely un-American.”

Those guidelines, under review since August, would prohibit prayers to “advance specific religious beliefs” during non-religious, routine Air Force ceremonies. Instead, only “non-sectarian prayers” would be permitted. [See excerpts in sidebar.]

The new rules are being developed after Air Force investigators found evidence of religious intimidation by Christian cadets at the service’s academy last spring.

Critics of the plan — including a group of 71 congressmen — believe the language will form the basis of a new militarywide policy governing chaplains’ actions, and fear that will result in the censorship of more chaplains.

At a Wednesday press conference, Colby May, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, said the regulations as proposed are too restrictive, going beyond the separation of church and state outlined in the First Amendment. He said any limits on what chaplains can say is “a serious disservice not only to those chaplains, but also to our Christian servicemen” that hurts their ability to practice their religion.

But Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he sees nothing in the proposed guidelines that prohibits servicemembers from expressing their faith.

Instead, he said, the rules would keep chaplains from inappropriately evangelizing at official military events.

“At a Christian service, you would expect a chaplain to use language specific to his faith,” he said. “But if we’re talking about a formal event with people who are not there for a religious service, then you shouldn’t use that kind of language.

“If that’s the case, maybe they need to get a church somewhere. Maybe they ought not to be an officer in the armed forces.”

But the Rev. Billy Baugham, executive director of the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers, said using religious language is part of a chaplain’s job, and restricting their words hurts both them and the troops who turn to them for guidance.

He also sees the new guidelines as part of a slippery slope where the Defense Department could outlaw all religious speech.

“There is more religious freedom for the prisoners at (Naval Base) Guantanamo than in the Air Force,” he said. “This does not pass the common sense test.”

Air Force officials said a decision on the guidelines is expected in January.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., drafted a letter in October requesting the executive order, noting that they were concerned by the perceived limits on what chaplains can say. On Wednesday, he said he had discussed the issue briefly with the president last month, and was still working on the idea with the president’s staff.

White House officials had no comment on the issue.

Air Force guidance on exercise of religion

Some excerpts from the Air Force’s interim guidance on free exercise of religion.

Guidance on public prayer outside of voluntary worship settings:

1. Public 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.

2. Common sense — and mutual respect — should always be applied and extraordinary circumstances may drive exceptions.

3. Consistent with long-standing military tradition, a brief nonsectarian prayer may be included in nonroutine military ceremonies or events of special importance, such as changes of command, promotion ceremonies or significant celebrations where the purpose of the prayer is to add a heightened sense of seriousness or solemnity, not to advance specific religious beliefs. Military chaplains are trained to deal with such events.

4. In addition, a moment of silence for personal reflection does not require the same considerations as public prayer and may be appropriate in official settings.

On individual sharing of religious faith:

1. In official circumstances, particularly situations where superior/subordinate relationships are involved, individuals need to be sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official expressions. This is especially true when subordinates are present as part of their official duties and obligations.

2. The more senior the individual, the more likely that personal expressions may be perceived to be official statements. The more senior the leader, the more responsibility he or she has to send the message that we are a team based on trust, respect, and a common mission to defend our nation and that what is expected of all our personnel is to live up to our oaths, embrace our shared Air Force core values, and do our duty.

3. Nothing in this guidance should be understood to limit voluntary, peer-to-peer discussions.

Source: U.S. Air Force

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