Three members of the Kansas congressional delegation are asking the Air Force to backtrack on new guidelines meant to protect servicemembers from religious harassment.
"Freedom of religion as protected in the U.S. Constitution does not require the removal of all religion from public settings," Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said in an Oct. 31 letter to President Bush.
U.S. Reps. Jim Ryun and Todd Tiahrt, also Kansas Republicans, signed onto an Oct. 11 letter to the Air Force secretary saying that parts of the new guidelines "clearly restrict free exercise of religion and are misguided."
Air Force officials unveiled an interim version of the new rules in August, after reports that non-Christians at the U.S. Air Force Academy had been subjected to religious slurs, jokes and disparaging remarks.
The guidelines generally discourage public prayer, except under "extraordinary circumstances" such as mass casualties.
"The bottom line here is the Air Force is not a faith-based institution," said Robert Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which led calls for the service to clamp down on problems at the academy. "Its job is to defend the American people, not spread evangelical Christianity."
But Christian groups have protested the rules and are trying to get them rewritten.
"We're very concerned that the current guidelines ... are attempting to stifle religious expression," Sonja Swiatkiewicz, a spokeswoman for Focus on the Family, told the Journal-World last week.
In the letters signed by Brownback, Ryun and Tiahrt, several objections were raised:
¢ One provision discourages officers from discussing their faith with subordinates, to avoid perceived religious pressure.
"The more senior the individual, the more likely that personal expressions may be perceived to be official statements," the guidelines say, adding that officers can discuss religious matters with colleagues of similar rank.
¢ Another provision places restrictions on where and how public prayers can be offered. Opponents say that would restrict the work of military chaplains.
¢ And a final provision urges chaplains to be sensitive to "professional settings where mandatory participation (in activities) may make expressions of religious faith inappropriate."
"In the main, they're pretty good," Boston said of the rules. "They strike the appropriate balance by protecting the rights of individual believers to express their faith, but curbing anything that might be considered coercive or state-sponsored religion."
Swiatkiewicz said the new provisions were too restrictive.
"We should be encouraging spiritual reflection at the Air Force Academy and the other service academies," she said.
When asked about religious harassment at the academy, she said, "It's not a widespread problem."
Ryun, whose 2nd district includes the western half of Lawrence, and Tiahrt, whose 4th district represents Wichita, agreed in the letter they co-signed with 33 other members of Congress.
"The Air Force leadership has reacted to a small problem at the Air Force Academy by creating a different set of problems in these guidelines," they wrote.
Spokesmen for Brownback, Ryun and Tiahrt declined to comment beyond the letters.
"This has become a cause celÃbre for the religious right, their latest effort to fan the flames of the culture war," Boston said. "Most of the members who signed this letter are part of the same old crew that does whatever the TV preachers tell them to do. I see this as politics, not about religious freedom."
But Swiatkiewicz said deeper issues were involved.
"We train these young men and women to fight and possibly die for our country," she said. "To tell them they cannot talk publicly or make decisions about the ultimate meaning of life is absurd."