Evangelism in the military under fire

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Evangelism in the military under fire
by Meghan A. O’Connell and Michael P. McLaughlin

“Members of the military swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Weinstein told United Press International. “They do not put their hand on the Constitution and swear an oath to support and defend the New Testament.” 
    
Weinstein, an Air Force Academy alumnus and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, began protesting two years ago when his children – cadets at the Academy – complained of being subjected to taunts and evangelizing because they are Jewish 
    
Following complaints, the Pentagon launched an investigation and issued a report in June 2005 concluding that the Air Force Academy exercised religious intolerance and inappropriate proselytizing on several occasions, but was not overtly discriminatory. 
    
The report cited professors promoting religion from lecterns, fliers set at the more than 4,000 place settings in the dining hall promoting “The Passion of the Christ,” a “Team Jesus” banner in a locker room, and harassment of cadets who did not attend voluntary prayer meetings…

     

The Air Force revised its guidelines concerning the exercise of religion in February. Under the new protocol, superior officers have the right to free expression, public prayer is discouraged as part of routine official functions and chaplains should implement programs for people of all faiths, but are not required to participate in religious activates inconsistent with their beliefs 
    
Weinstein filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force in October 2005, alleging that it had violated the right to religious freedom by “adopting a formal and informal policy of evangelizing, proselytizing and otherwise actively challenging the religion of its members.” 
    
The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for New Mexico, and is awaiting a ruling. 
    
Weinstein proposed in the lawsuit that “no member of the U.S. Air Force, including a chaplain, is permitted to evangelize, proselytize, or in any related way attempt to involuntarily convert, pressure, exhort or persuade a fellow member of the U.S. Air Force to accept their own religious beliefs while on duty.” 
    
The Air Force argues that Weinstein’s position is unconstitutional itself, because it would allegedly violate the First Amendment. 
    
A spokesman for the Air Force told UPI “Mr. Weinstein’s offer to settle the lawsuit would have required the Air Force to act in a manner inconsistent with the United States Constitution. We believe that the current Air Force Guidelines concerning Free Exercise of Religion in the Air Force strike the appropriate balance under the Constitution.” 
    
Joel Oster, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal alliance for religious freedom involved in the lawsuit, argued against Weinstein’s position too. 
    
He told UPI that Weinstein’s proposal “would restrict the soldiers’ ability to share their faith and to seek spiritual guidance from others while they are in training in the States and serving overseas.” 
    
“The life-after is a common topic because of the very nature of what they do,” Oster said. “This is a significant restraint on speech.” 
    
The issue of religious tolerance in the armed forces has been debated in Congress as well. 
    
In May, the House Armed Services Committee defeated an amendment to the Pentagon appropriations bill from Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) that would have mandated military chaplains to show “sensitivity, respect and tolerance” to those they minister 
    
“It shocks me that my amendment that gave chaplains the right to worship as they wish, but simply asked them to demonstrate sensitivity, tolerance, and respect to members of all faith was defeated on a party line vote,” Israel told UPI. 
    
The Air Force contends that its standing guidelines are respectful to all of its members. 
    
“Mutual respect is essential to the culture of Airmen,” an Air Force spokesman wrote to UPI. “Our policy is clear: tolerance of gender, racial, ethnic, and religious diversity is required in our Air Force. There is absolutely no room for slurs or other offensive comments or behaviors.”

 


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