Free religious speech?

Chaplain ShieldMy brother went to the Air Force Academy, which also happened to be a few miles from where my family lived in Colorado. We loved going to football games, but my father (a pastor) cringed each time they began the pre-game ceremonies with a prayer. Mostly that was because the clergy always prayed for an Air Force victory. He felt this was grossly inappropriate and trivialized prayer. The good news for my dad is that the new religious guidelines issued Feb. 9 by the Air Force Academy seem to discourage such instances of prayer. The bad news for Pops is that they seem to encourage such trivialized content.

Julia Duin of the Washington Times has been all over this story, providing regular updates and an understanding of the conflict. Here's how she succinctly sums up the one-page guidelines:

The Air Force yesterday released revised guidelines on religious observance that say chaplains need not recite prayers incompatible with their beliefs, but that also encourage "non-denominational" or "inclusive" prayer in public situations.

It is always interesting to see how various reporters wrap their heads around the odd bedfellows that come together in religious liberty and free speech fights, but most reports did a good job of explaining how some Christians involved in the battle just want the freedom to pray according to their conscience. Having said that, do these first three paragraphs in Robert Weller's AP account clarify anything?

The Air Force released new guidelines for religious expression Thursday that no longer caution top officers about promoting their personal religious views.

The revisions were welcomed by conservative Christians, who said the previous rules was too strict and lobbied the White House to change them.

Critics called the revisions a step backward and said they do nothing to protect the rights of most airmen.

I mean, the guidelines do caution officers about promoting personal religious views, the revisions were not unilaterally welcome by conservative Christians and who are the critics mentioned in the third paragraph? Adjectives can be our friend! I don't want to bash on Weller, as I understand wire service accounts can be difficult, but a complex issue deserves a bit more clarification.

Which brings us back to Duin. She not only got the gist of the guidelines, she broke a Washington story that was totally missed by the political trade blogs:

bush allen

Meanwhile, White House domestic policy adviser Claude Allen, a key aide who had sided with evangelicals on the issue, resigned abruptly Wednesday after five years with the Bush administration. His short letter to the president called it "the best decision for my family."

In a Jan. 22 conversation with Rep. Walter B. Jones reported in The Washington Times, Mr. Allen promised the North Carolina Republican that President Bush would pressure Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld into allowing military chaplains to be more explicit about their faith.

She cites a military source saying Allen (pictured with President Bush) resigned to protest the White House's refusal to lean on the Pentagon about the issue. If true, that's quite the bombshell. It also shows how religious reporters can break political news that political reporters might not. Again, compare Duin's info with the befuddlement of National Journal Group's Hotline on Call or Weller's lead.

I hope reporters continue to cover these brief guidelines and their implementation. As some keen reporters figured out long ago, this story is more about wars within the Air Force chaplaincy than anything else. Do these guidelines protect the rights of non-mainstream religious leaders? Will the Air Force pay lip service to religious freedom but then not promote the charismatic and evangelical chaplains who preach and pray in ways that make the rest of the chaplain corps uncomfortable?

Also, a final plea: Could reporters covering this story break out from getting all their quotes from the same few people (Mikey Weinstein, Ted Haggard, Tom Minnery)? I mean, there are hundreds of millions of people in this country, more than a dozen of whom have thoughts on the issue. Let's hear from a more diverse pool.

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