Air Force Backs Down on Policy Allowing Chaplains to Evangelize

Church & State, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Air Force Backs Down on Policy Allowing Chaplains to Evangelize


The U.S. Air Force says it will drop a policy that allowed chaplains to proselytize service members with no religion, in an effort to settle a lawsuit brought by an Americans United member.

Mikey Weinstein, an Albuquerque attorney and alumnus of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, filed suit last month over a code for chaplains written by the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF), a private group that provides chaplains to the military.

In an effort to smooth tensions among denominations, the NCMAF guidelines discourage "sheep stealing"--that is, converting members of one faith to another. The policy instead recommends proselytizing those who have no religious affiliation.

The sentence reads, "I will not actively proselytize from other religious bodies. However, I retain the right to instruct and/or evangelize those who are not affiliated."

Air Force officials claim the document was never official policy. But critics point out that it was distributed at Alabama's Maxwell Air Force Base, where chaplains train. In July, the Air Force's deputy chief of chaplains, Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, implied that the language was official policy, echoing it in an interview with The New York Times.

"We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched," Richardson said.

Weinstein said the policy amounted to an official Air Force promotion of evangelistic activity that violated the rights of those who may have consciously chosen to be non-religious.

"Does that mean atheists or agnostics don't have the rights of other Americans?" Weinstein said an interview with The Times. "And how do they decide who's not affiliated? What about Protestants that just go to the Easter sunrise service or the midnight Mass at Christmas?"

An Air Force attorney, Mary L. Walker, had originally claimed that the Air Force had no existing, policy" endorsing proselytism. She did acknowledge that the Air Force had withdrawn the chaplains' guidelines, conceding the document might have led some chaplains to believe they have a right to proselytize. …

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