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Air Force Sued Over Religious Recruiting
USA Today   |  March 10, 2006
DENVER -- A vocal critic of Pentagon policies on religion in the ranks filed court papers Thursday alleging that an Air Force recruiter in New Mexico was asked "to use Jesus Christ as a recruiting tool."

Michael "Mikey" Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the Air Force Academy, filed suit against the Air Force in federal court in Albuquerque in October. Weinstein and four other plaintiffs allege illegal proselytizing by evangelical Christian chaplains, officers and cadets at the Air Force Academy and throughout the service.

The plaintiffs -- including one of Weinstein's sons who is an Air Force officer -- filed a motion Thursday to amend the lawsuit, challenging the Air Force's "interim guidelines" on religious expression issued last month.

The latest filing seeks to add another plaintiff, Master Sgt. Phillip Burleigh of Alamogordo, N.M., a 24-year veteran. It alleges that Burleigh, an Air Force Reserve recruiter at Holloman Air Force Base, "has been subjected to regular and persistent proselytizing by his superior officers" against his will and "in violation of his constitutional rights."

Burleigh could not be reached for comment. The filing says his problems began in 1997 with "aggressive proselytizing" by his supervisor and lower performance ratings than colleagues who attended prayer groups and church.

Pentagon spokeswoman Jean Schaefer wouldn't comment on the filing, but said the Air Force is "committed to having an environment for everyone to practice or not practice their faith."

The 12-page court filing says guest speakers at conventions of Air Force recruiters in 2003 and 2005 told Burleigh and other recruiters that "they needed to accept Jesus Christ in order to perform their job duties" and "to use faith in Jesus Christ while recruiting."

"It's absolutely horrifying that the Air Force has been trying to force its recruiters to use the gospel of Jesus Christ as a recruiting tool," said Weinstein, who is Jewish. "There's no wall left between church and state in the Air Force."

Weinstein took on the military last year after a Pentagon task force cleared the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs of "overt religious discrimination" but noted insensitivity toward cadets of non-Christian faiths. Weinstein has a second son who is a cadet there.

Complaints of religious intolerance, conversion attempts and favoritism for "born again" Christian cadets had first surfaced in a 2004 campus survey and in criticism in a Yale Divinity School study of chaplain practices at the academy.

The controversy led the Air Force to issue four-page guidelines last August for "free exercise of religion" throughout the service. It also instituted religious sensitivity training for the academy's cadets and staff.

Members of Congress and some Christian groups objected that the guidelines were too restrictive. They said the rules violated constitutional guarantees of free exercise of religion and discriminated against evangelicals, who consider spreading their faith a requirement of Christianity.

A national petition drive and a congressional letter to President Bush sought guarantees that chaplains could pray at military gatherings "in Jesus' name," not just with non-sectarian words.

In February, the Pentagon shortened the guidelines to one page and eased some restrictions on chaplains. Evangelical groups praised the change as restoring freedom of religion for believers.

Critics, including Weinstein and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the revision doesn't give non-believers freedom from religion.

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