AF Publishes New Reg on Religion, Social Media, House Cleaning

Newly-retired General Norton Schwartz’s parting gift to the Air Force was Air Force Instruction 1-1, a newly formed regulation (dated 7 Aug 2012, three days before his retirement) simply entitled “Air Force Standards” (implementing AFPD1).

Unlike other standalone AFIs, the new 1-1 is essentially a collection of the high points from multiple other regulations, or citations with a Chief of Staff tweak.  For example, there are paragraphs on professional relationships, drug use, and paying one’s bills.  Airmen are prohibited from ever burning an American flag (except for its reverent disposition), and Airmen can travel in any uniform — except the flight suit.  While some people have mocked the fact bullying and hazing are allowed in this AFI if they are part of an approved training program, certain specialized programs do exist that would likely fall under some definitions of “hazing,” despite their essential contribution to the Air Force mission.

There are, however, two notable “new” subjects.

First, General Schwartz included a paragraph from his 2011 memo on “religious neutrality.” The same memo over which Michael Weinstein berated USAFA Superintendent General Mike Gould for not distributing to all Airmen is now codified in the Chief of Staff’s personal AFI.  Much of the citation is essentially a quote of the memo [formatting original]:

2.11. Government Neutrality Regarding Religion. Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. For example, they 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. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order, and discipline.

The paragraph continues, however, with new text of a caution on the limits of exercising one’s religion in the Air Force:

Airmen, especially commanders and supervisors, must ensure that in exercising their right of religious free expression, they do not degrade morale, good order, and discipline in the Air Force or degrade the trust and confidence that the public has in the United States Air Force.

That would seem to be the first time the Air Force has officially said free exercise can be limited by the military’s interpretation of its effect on good order and discipline.  While the military can restrict virtually anything it wants when the mission requires, it is unusual for such a specific statement to address an otherwise protected freedom.

As an example, such a statement could impact the recent acceptance of homosexuality in the military, a repeal that was repeatedly defended by statements it would have no effect on the ability of religious servicemembers to hold — or express — their religious and moral beliefs in opposition to homosexuality.  Now, though, it seems the Air Force has left open the door to restricting that free exercise — if only homosexuals or their allies can convince the service “good order and discipline” is harmed by Christian sermons in the base chapel.

Similarly, the tone and emphasis of the paragraph on religion in the Air Force seems to be negative, as it seems to focus on and emphasize the limitations of religious freedom, rather than defend its virtue.  Indeed, in the nearly 300-word section on religion, only 7 words positively affirm the right of Airmen to exercise their faith:

You should confidently practice your own beliefs…

but even that sentence ends with a restrictive qualifier:

…while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.

On the positive side, at least it emphasizes respecting other people, not other people’s beliefs, as has been previously commonly stated.  Respect among troops who have conflicting beliefs (whether religious, political, or sports-based) is a common standard in the military.

The tone of AFI 1-1’s paragraph on religion is an interesting contrast to that of the 2006 Religious Guidelines that, rather than presuming a negative perception of religious freedom, presumed its virtue:

We will accommodate free exercise of religion and other personal beliefs, as well as freedom of expression, except as must be limited by compelling military necessity (with such limitations being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible).

The regulation touches on several other subjects, including imposing new guidance on workplace conversations:

Political discussions are generally not appropriate in the Federal workplace.

The second “new” topic is the AFI’s specific attention, for the first time in an Air Force regulation, on social media:

You are personally responsible for what you say and post on social networking services and any other medium. Regardless of the method of communication used, Air Force standards must be observed at all times, both on and off-duty.

The reg goes a step further, restricting anything an Airman posts on the internet that could impact “good order and discipline:”

Airmen who provide commentary and opinions on internet blogs that they host or on others’ internet blogs, may not place comments on those blog sites, which reasonably can be anticipated, or are intended, to degrade morale, good order, and discipline of any members or units in the U.S. Armed Forces, are Service-discrediting, or would degrade the trust and confidence of the public in the United States Air Force.

This appears to be the only place in the 27 page AFI that specifically notes “any members or units in the US Armed Forces,” as opposed to “Air Force personnel” or simply “others.”  It’s almost as if it was written with a specific situation in mind.

If applied strictly and with a broad interpretation of “morale, good order…discipline,” and the public trust, it could be immensely restricting.  An Airman who posted on his Facebook page that Christians who oppose the acceptance of homosexual behavior are “bigots,” for example, could be found in violation of the UCMJ as a result of this paragraph.

The final paragraph of the new AFI gives some uniquely specific guidance to individual Airmen from their Chief of Staff:

Airmen will ensure that their homes are maintained in a clean and orderly fashion.

Just in case you needed a little incentive to pick up your socks and mow your lawn.