In an update this month to the Air Force Instruction 1-1 (AFI 1-1), several changes have been made in order to “clarify guidance” for the handling of requests for religious accommodations from airmen. These changes are meant to alleviate problems with airmen’s rights to religious expression.
Officials for the Air Force Chaplain Corps have also made clarifications to language within the policy, which is intended to help commanders with balancing constitutionally protected rights to religious freedom with the need to avoid constitutionally prohibited activities such as promoting or establishing a religion.
The changes are a result of the Religious Freedom Focus Day held earlier this year.
Air Force Chief of Chaplains, Maj. Gen. Howard D. Stendahl said, “We provide, or provide for, the free exercise of religion and we advocate its free exercise for every member of the Air Force and the joint environment and their families.”
In June, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF – an organization that seeks to promote church/state separation in the military) provided a draft version to the Air Force Times. The draft provided by MRFF had verbiage which was meant to strengthen the new regulations, including instruction for commanders and others to “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.” The final version states:
2.12. Balance of Free Exercise of Religion and Establishment Clause. 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.
MRFF President Mikey Weinstein is concerned that airmen will have the ability to discriminate against their peers by outward displays of disgust and disdain for their fellows who are homosexual or bisexual. He expressed concern that the language of the revision will allow for persuasion because of its verbiage concerning religious beliefs, which are “sincerely held.” Weinstein stated his concern is that such verbiage sets a bar that is impossible to clear when airmen have been subjected to prejudice.