Top Air Force General Issues Order on Religious Neutrality
General Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, has apparently issued a memorandum to his commanders entitled “Maintaining Government Neutrality Regarding Religion.” It makes what is probably the most significant official change to the religious environment in the Air Force in some years (reference the “Religious Guidelines” of 2006).
First, it notes that “leaders at all levels”
must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion.
which is substantially similar to previous military positions. Of course, the complexity of the environment prevents a detailed explanation as to what constitutes “apparent use” or what may be “apparent…preferential treatment” vice the expected (and required) accommodation of religion. This has long been an understandable challenge with regard to religion and the government, not just the military.
The memorandum then raises new content: First, it acknowledges the value of “religious studies.”
Chaplain Corps programs, including activities such as religious studies, faith sharing, and prayer meetings, are vital to commanders’ support of individual Airmen’s needs and provide opportunities for the free exercise of religion.
That is the most blunt statement to date from the Air Force supporting the “free exercise” of its troops to participate in such programs. However, the next statement in General Schwartz’s letter is the most significant:
Although commanders are responsible for these programs, they must refrain from appearing to officially endorse religion generally or any particular religion. Therefore, I expect chaplains, not commanders, to notify Airmen of Chaplain Corps programs.
The memorandum accurately notes Department of Defense instructions put the responsibility for these programs on commanders, not Chaplains. (Note the prior quote said “religious studies” are “vital to commander’s support,” not Chaplain’s support.) However, there is little, if any, lower level guidance on how the commanders should execute those programs. General Schwartz has now given direction that only Chaplains can “notify” people about religious programs like “religious studies.”
Given recent history, this would seem to be a response to “scandals” over commanders walking headlong into this prior lack of clear guidance. Most publicly, officers at Creech AFB and Kirtland AFB have been chastised for distributing emails announcing Bible studies within their units. As noted at the time, the wording of current policies seemed to support the commanders. In both cases, one of the “corrective actions” was the movement of the announcement to the Chaplains’ purview. General Schwartz appears to have acted to remove any ambiguity in the Air Force’s institutional application of those policies.
This policy will likely be heavily scrutinized in the coming weeks, both by those who don’t want to run afoul of it and those who wish to accuse people of doing precisely that. Indeed, the memorandum itself opens up some interesting questions. (Is a commander at a mass inprocessing prohibited from mentioning Chapel services? Can a religious program leader — who is neither a Chaplain nor a commander — “notify” Airmen?). It is also possible one unintended effect will be an increase in email distributions from Chaplains, which will undoubtedly raise someone’s ire.
The US military has a long history and relationship with religion, beginning with George Washington centuries ago, and “balance” is certainly necessary. On one extreme, the military has a legitimate call to prevent officers telling their subordinates from their official positions “You need to be Christian” (or any other religion). On another extreme, it appears some critics (like Rick Baker and Chris Rodda, both of Michael Weinstein’s MRFF) would like to see a military where an officer cannot even mention that he is a Christian.
Religious freedom, particularly in relation to the State, is an interesting — and complex — issue.
Subsequently noted at the Air Force Times.