Freedom’s Finis Flight?
The U.S. Air Force’s “Neutrality” Policy Creates a Religious No-Fly Zone
by Joseph M. Burns
On September 1, 2011, General Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, signed out a memo with new and worrisome instructions for airmen of all ranks—including both uniformed members and Air Force civilians—on “Maintaining Government Neutrality Regarding Religion.”1 This policy is cause for no small concern, especially when compared to the prior Air Force policy (“Revised Interim Guidelines Concerning Free Exercise of Religion in the Air Force”) signed out by the previous Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force on February 9, 2006.2 The new memo inaugurates a significant tightening of religious-freedom boundaries in the Air Force and follows other measures that seem to be aimed at replacing free exercise of religion with freedom from religion. Unlike the former, of course, the latter has no foundation in the U.S. Constitution.
Regarding the rationale for his September 1 memo, General Schwartz’s spokesman said:
Perhaps we can, but if we’re worried about impartiality and objectivity, shouldn’t we simply reinforce the existing policy globally while taking appropriate actions towards violators individually? After all, we wouldn’t outlaw pedestrian travel to control jaywalking, would we?
Yet when you compare the details of the new policy with their counterparts in the old, it looks like the answer is actually yes. For example, the previous guidelines took a more balanced approach between religion and irreligion. They prohibited both officially endorsing and officially disapproving of any faith belief. The new guidelines only outlaw officially endorsing a faith belief. So, under General Schwartz’s new policy, leaders are now free to officially and publicly disapprove of any faith belief or of faith in general. Official disapproval of a faith belief would certainly make it difficult to freely exercise that faith. That reality clearly calls into question the “impartiality” of the new standards.
What’s more, the new Air Force policy fails to tackle both sides of the constitutional proscriptions surrounding religion. In particular, the 2006 policy addressed both faith beliefs and the absence of same, reminding airmen that neither could be officially endorsed or officially disapproved of. The fact that the 2011 version leaves out the previous restriction against the endorsement of a lack of faith beliefs is tantamount to an implied endorsement of irreligion, leaving the door open for all Air Force leaders to officially endorse an absence of faith beliefs. Such endorsements would naturally be seen by subordinates as official opposition to religion. Where is the neutrality in a policy that spawns that sort of outcome?
Most troubling, General Schwartz’s memo adds the startling stipulation that commanders must not even appear to endorse religion. That completely subjective caveat enormously broadens the reach of the restrictions. Would wall hangings or desk art featuring Bible verses be verboten under this standard? How about saying “God bless you” or even “Bless you” instead of “Gesundheit” when somebody sneezes? Is it now out of bounds for a commander or supervisor to tell someone facing a difficult mission or experiencing a family tragedy, “I’ll be praying for you”? As these very passive examples illustrate, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could exercise his religion freely without appearing to endorse it.
Tightening the restrictions on religious freedom even further, the new Air Force policy levies a gag order on commanders: “I expect chaplains, not commanders, to notify Airmen of Chaplain programs.” While declaring commanders responsible for those same programs, the September 1 memo handcuffs their ability to influence the programs’ utility and success. The resulting official indifference from senior leadership and the attendant lack of visibility will ultimately cause chaplain programs to become functionally inert. Such a disturbing consequence would be directly at odds with the spiritual component of the Air Force’s Comprehensive Airman Fitness Program, which seeks to increase the resilience of airmen in the face of the rigors of military life. So then, are these handcuffs truly a sign of neutrality toward religion, or rather of hostility
Finally, even the titles of the 2006 and 2011 memos differ significantly in their primary emphases. The former focuses on the “Free Exercise of Religion,” the latter on “Religious Neutrality.” While the distinction may seem minor, it leaves little doubt that there is now less interest in allowing the free exercise of religion in the Air Force and more interest in curbing it.
Though the Chief of Staff’s new policy is itself enormously significant, it is not the only recent action by him, or the Air Force in general, that signals a vector change away from the free exercise of religion and towards freedom from it. In June 2011, a commentary appeared in the Travis Air Force Base newspaper about servant leadership. It was written by a Chief Master Sergeant with more than two and a half decades of service to America. His commentary used business, military, and personal references to describe and recommend servant leadership, and it also included these opinions:
This commentary was quickly pulled from the base’s website, and indications were that the order to remove it came from General Schwartz. Whatever the case, the Air Force, in effect, told this leader—who had achieved the service’s highest enlisted grade—to privatize and compartmentalize the precepts that no doubt helped him arrive there.
Subsequently, the Air Force launched a service-wide review of all its courses on ethics, core values, morals, and character, in an effort to ensure that these topics would be taught within the bounds of religious neutrality. But no comment was offered indicating what neutral foundation the service would use in place of or alongside the Bible to aid future officers in differentiating between right and wrong, an essential skill for maintaining the trust and confidence of the American
Without doubt, the capstone to all these actions was the memo signed out by the Chief of Staff on September 1, which was celebrated as a “watershed edict” and “monumental victory”6 by the inaptly named Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the same organization that prompted the Air Force to suspend “Christian Just War Theory”7 and to scrutinize all courses, like “Core Values and the Air Force Member.”8
Upsetting the Balance
Commenting on the interim guidelines issued by the Air Force in 2005, the American Center for Law and Justice highlighted the delicate balance between avoiding the establishment of religion and ensuring its free exercise:
In essence, the twin constitutional religious proscriptions—against establishment of religion and against prohibition of its free exercise—mark off a religious fair-play zone. Staying in bounds requires determined and careful balancing of each. Nowhere, however, does the Constitution demand (or, more importantly, even allow) anything close to a religion-free zone—a place where those offended by religion can exist untroubled by it in any way. General Schwartz’s September 1 policy pushes the Air Force precipitously close to that unconstitutional religion-free zone by increasing restrictions on free exercise that already appear to be outside the Constitution’s fair-play zone.
In truth, it is impossible for General Schwartz or anyone else to increase impartiality or objectivity in a two-sided issue by diminishing only the rights of those on one side. The Constitution’s dual proscriptions on religion delicately balance a two-sided coin on its narrow edge. Any pressure exerted against one side, without equal pressure against the other, doesn’t equalize that balance; it upsets it. In the end, the coin falls over, with just one side exposed while the other vanishes completely. Thus, although the 2011 memo begins with a reminder to airmen of this important balance, it goes on to levy
Whatever lessons the Air Force can learn from the well-meaning commanders and senior noncommissioned officers who appeared to advance a particular religious view among their subordinates, it’s unimaginable that they would be so momentous as to require curtailing the Constitution’s right of free exercise of religion, which has been undisturbed in America’s military for more than 220 years. Even harder to understand is how such an order would come from the hand of one who swore an oath “to support and defend” that Constitution. •
The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its Components.
Joseph M. Burns retired from the Air Force in 2008 after serving for 27 years. Since then, he has worked as an Air Force civil servant. He is a graduate of Breakpoint's Centurions Program.
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“Freedom’s Finis Flight?” first appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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