US Air Force Revises Religious Guidelines

As previously noted, the Air Force has published a revision to its AFI 1-1, “Air Force Standards,” which alters the wording and tone on how the service views religious liberty and expression.  The new AFI can be found here (PDF).

The greatest sources of consternation were paragraphs 2.11 and 2.12, and that’s where the Air Force made its revisions. In one notable change, the topics of 2.11 and 2.12 have been reversed: The Air Force now talks about religious freedom and expression before it talks about restrictions and the Establishment clause. While that may seem insignificant to some, it is noteworthy for the tone of the regulation.

The most significant change to the AFI — in direct response to laws passed by Congress — also marks its most dramatic explicit statement. The new regulation now says [emphasis added]:

Every Airman also has the right to individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs, to include conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs, unless those expressions would have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety, or mission accomplishment.

Every Airman has the right to express their religious beliefs.  Further, should the Air Force take action against an Airman, the burden is on the service to demonstrate a compelling need to do so [comments and emphasis added]:

If it is necessary to deny free exercise of religion…the decision must be based on the facts presented [that is, not hypothetical], must directly [that is, not abstractly] relate to the compelling government interest of military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety, or mission accomplishment, and must be by the least restrictive means necessary to avoid the cited adverse impact.

That last phrase is important: If an Air Force leader is going to deny an Airman the ability to exercise his religious expression, he is allowed to do so. But, he must cite the actual and direct adverse impact that the denial is intended to mitigate. In other words, the justification “you might offend someone who thinks differently than you” — which is the de facto rationale used by Michael “Mikey” Weinstein in his attacks on Christianity in the US military — is not sufficient under this regulation.

The paragraph directed specifically to leaders used to be “Government Neutrality Regarding Religion,” but it is now “Balance of Free Exercise of Religion and Establishment Clause.” Even the title change is important, as it tells Airmen their leaders recognize they are not exclusively government actors, which seemed to be the starting assumption of the original wording. The tone of the paragraph itself seems less negative toward religious expression, as the old paragraph focused more on potential (hypothetical) negative outcomes than supporting Airmen’s rights. The new paragraph says:

Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for their own free exercise of religion, including individual expressions of religious beliefs, and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. They must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief, or absence of belief.

Importantly, the wording above shows the AFI most often cited to decry individual expressions of religious belief now explicitly recognizes those expressions as constitutionally-protected. That is a significant hurdle for external critics of military religious freedom — read: Mikey Weinstein — who want to restrict Christians’ ability to express their faith while in the Air Force.

It seems clear part of the intent of the rewrite was to alter the tone of the underlying assumptions regarding religious liberty in the Air Force. Rather than assuming that religious expression, action, or association is negative and implying it should be avoided, the new wording explicitly states that religious expression, action, and association are protected. While both versions could potentially have the same result — religious expression could be restricted for mission necessity, for example — the tone of the new AFI wording presupposes the positive value religious liberty and places the burden on those who may need to restrict the liberty, rather than those who wish to exercise it.

There was one final change to the AFI, apparently so obscure that it has essentially gone unnoticed. In a separate section on the “Use of Social Media,” a paragraph was added that says

If the [social media] communication involves the expression of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) paragraphs 2.11 and 2.12 also apply.

For some reason, Air Force leaders rewriting the section on religious liberty felt the need to specifically point out that this updated guidance — which explicitly protects religious expression — also applies to religious expression in social media. Given the prevalence of social media today — and the fact that merely posting a Bible verse on the internet can cause Mikey Weinstein to email the Chief of Staff of the Air Force — it was probably a worthwhile highlight.  Still, it was an interesting way to get a Bible verse to General Welsh’s desk.

Critics of military religious freedom have been somewhat schizophrenic about the new Air Force wording, on one hand saying it is insignificant and on the other saying it opens a door to Christians taking over the world. Advocates for religious freedom in the military have generally viewed the changes as positive, though years of “promises” based on Congress’ NDAAs led a few to a “wait and see how its implemented” response.

One of the truest tests of the new policy will be seen in its use by Mikey Weinstein. Weinstein essentially claimed the old wording was the result of his personal influence over former Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz. Weinstein has been beating the AFI 1-1 drum since its inception, using it as a club to attack the religious freedom of Christians in the US Air Force. Schwartz’s successor, General Mark Welsh, has taken away Weinstein’s favorite tool, and it will be interesting to see how Weinstein reacts.

Talking heads will say what they want. Regardless of the topic, US troops simply want clear guidance, freedom to the maximum extent the mission allows, and policy driven from a thoughtful chain of command rather than reactions to outside activists. The Air Force seems to have won on all counts in this revision.

While some remain cautious about how the new wording is implemented, it seems military religious freedom advocates were able to convince Congress and the Air Force to support an environment in which religious freedom can flourish.

Also at the Military Times, the Religion Clause, and World Religion News.  Critics reacted at the Friendly Atheist and the MAAF.  The original AFI 1-1 can be seen here.



  • While I must admit that I think it will take a great deal of time for a policy change such as this to realistically take effect, due to social norms and guidelines that develop in military settings, I have to say that these amendments to the AFI are very promising. The fact that the “you might offend someone who thinks differently than you” claim simply doesn’t fly anymore addresses the issue of credibility among those who claim to be maltreated. Now, individuals who claim to be offended or infringed upon must provide a case with evidence and validity. However, while i cannot disagree that this guideline change is good, I must ask how much of an impact these changes will actually make in terms of facilitating religious liberty and freedom of expression in a real military environment?

    • @McLane Hill
      As quoted above, it may come down to “implementation” and overall culture. For example, if the tone of these changes, which presuppose the exercise of religious liberty, can inculcate the culture, there may be a noticeable drop in incidents like that surrounding Chaplain Kenneth Reyes, whose official article was removed by his commander due to a complaint by a secular activist, only to be restored later when religious liberty advocates protested the censorship — the same advocates, by the way, who pushed Congress for these AFI changes.

      In other words, “impact” may be measured more in the absence of something (“successful” attacks on troops’ religious liberty and the ensuing controversy) than in the rise or presence of any particular act or expression.

      Time will tell.