Air Force must follow Congressional intent on religious liberty

Leanna Baumer Senior Legislative Assistant, Family Research Council
Font Size:

For two years, Congress has directed the Department of Defense to better protect the rights of service members to live out their religious beliefs. Recent controversy at the Air Force Academy in March drew attention yet again to the fact that even the most casual religious expressions – simply posting a Bible verse on a personal white board – can result in wrongful command pressure to forgo expressing one’s faith out of fear of offense to a potential bystander.

The harsh reaction from military leadership bolsters the pervasive perception that service members cannot be open about religious faith in today’s military, and continues to reveal the DOD’s disregard for Congressional intent.

The Air Force stands out amongst the branches in the minimal emphasis it gives to protecting religious expression and the maximum attention it gives to avoiding any even the hypothetical suggestion of official sanction to religion. This discrepancy derives from two novel portions of a regulation adopted in 2012 – Section 2.11 and Section 2.12 of Air Force Instruction 1-1 – and has resulted in much harmful confusion for airmen, officers, and the commanders tasked with following this policy.

Members of Congress have rightfully focused on this Air Force regulation in recent weeks, drawing attention to the fact that it is unprecedented and in violation of the statutory requirements of the last two National Defense Authorization Acts, which mandate protection for service members’ religious beliefs and religious expression. This week, Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado), along with twenty-two other Members, called on the Air Force to revise AFI 1-1 immediately because it is fundamentally unsound.

Congressman Lamborn’s letter follows questioning by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) of Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week on this policy, and builds upon questions directed by Congressman Randy Forbes (R-Virginia) and forty-one other Members to the Air Force Academy superintendent earlier this month.

One major concern has been the “subjective and unworkable” standard embodied in Section 2.11 of AFI 1-1, which exhorts leaders to avoid the “actual or apparent use” of their position to promote their religious beliefs. As seen at the Air Force Academy in March, even if no actual official promotion of a particular religion is occurring by a military leader, Section 2.11 can be used as justification to censor any religious expression by someone in leadership. Such restrictions as applied to Air Force leaders gut their Constitutional free exercise rights.

Secretary James finally conceded publicly last week that this policy has indeed resulted in substantial inconsistency and uncertainty for both Air Force leadership tasked with implementing the policy and the “real people” living under its framework. Acknowledging doubts regarding whether the Air Force is “doing the right thing or not,” Secretary James also announced that the Air Force Chief of Staff is convening a meeting this month to review AFI 1-1.

Such a meeting is long overdue and should include a realistic assessment of how Air Force policy is out of step with the other military branches and less protective of religious rights than the Constitution and recent statutes require. Air Force leadership would do well to take note of the points raised by Congressman Lamborn this week and revise their regulations accordingly.

Leanna Baumer is a senior legislative assistant at the Family Research Council.