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ARLINGTON, Va. — The air was electric with tension during a House hearing Tuesday into the religious climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy, with some lawmakers who described themselves as Christians saying the Air Force’s focus on the issue is a “sign of intolerance of Christianity.”

“It gets my dander up,” said Rep. Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican who participated in the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel subcommittee hearing. “Jesus Christ is my personal lord and savior … and I’m sensing a very biased [attitude] toward Christians and the free expression of my faith.”

“I’ve been struck throughout this debate … by the very vast perception divide that exists,” said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y. “Isn’t there a big difference between saying, ‘No you can’t have a prayer,’ or ‘Yes, you can have a prayer,’ and saying, ‘Those of you who don’t want to pray will burn in the fires of hell?’ Aren’t there clear lines of common sense?”

Other House members, however, said the issue is not freedom of speech, but sensitivity to other faiths.

“What we’re looking for here is a balance,” said Rep. Thelma Drake, R-Va.

House members called the hearing after the Air Force released a report June 22 that concluded the academy failed “to fully accommodate all members’ needs and a lack of awareness where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible expression of beliefs.”

Acting Air Force Secretary Michael Dominguez directed the Air Force’s Chief of Personnel, Lt. Gen. Michael Brady, to investigate the school’s approach to religion after Yale Divinity School released an independent report on religious intolerance at the academy in April.

Much of the hearing revolved around the term “proselytizing,” which some subcommittee members and witnesses said has a “coercive” element.

“There’s not a place for proselytizing in the Air Force, if you understand proselytizing to be coercive,” said Jack Williamson, chaplain in the Evangelical Friends Church and a member of a Yale committee who produced that report.

Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., objected, saying that “the term proselytizing has been thrown around” and given a negative connotation it does not deserve.

Evangelical Christians regard proselytizing as a mandatory sharing of their beliefs with others, not coercion, Hostettler said.

“This is hard stuff,” Brady, who was chief witness at Tuesday’s hearing, told House members. “There’s no debate [needed] about really egregious behavior, slurs, disparaging remarks. But [the question of] what I can say and what I can’t say as an expression of my faith is a more difficult issue.”

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from California who identified herself as a Catholic, said that Tuesday’s debate shows how touchy discussions of religious expression have become in the United States.

“If you have this [emotion] in the Congress, you could imagine you could have it somewhere else,” Sanchez said. “If we can go through some of these growing pains, the Air Force is allowed to, also.”


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