Garrett meets with Jewish groups on Air Force Academy guidelines

Garrett meets with Jewish groups on Air Force Academy guidelines

Rep. Scott Garrett (R-Fifth District) meets with the North Jersey Board of Rabbis on Jan. 3.

Proselytizing in the military was the main topic of discussion at a meeting Monday morning in Paramus among Rep. Scott Garrett (R-Fifth District), Etzion Neuer, director of ADL’s New Jersey Region, and representatives from United Jewish Communities of MetroWest. (Representatives from the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA of Northern New Jersey will meet with Garrett and other representatives in Washington in the near future.)

Garrett’s district runs from Bergenfield, New Milford, and River Edge through parts of Sussex and Hunterdon counties. He was one of 71 congressmen and two senators who wrote to the White House to protest guidelines written at the Air Force Academy in Colorado after a number of non-Christian cadets complained they were being harassed by evangelical officers, chaplains, and cadets, proselytizing for Christianity.

"Proselytizing in the military is an issue many people might not be aware of," said Neuer after meeting Garrett. "They need to know a bit more."

The proselytizing story first hit the newspapers in April ‘005, when the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, complained to the Pentagon about "a pervasive and systematic bias in favor of evangelical Christians at the government-run school."

There were allegations that evangelical Christian commanders, coaches, and cadets at the Air Force Academy were following their religious beliefs by proselytizing to those not of their faith and applying pressure to those who wouldn’t bend. A "Team Jesus Christ" flag was hung up in the football team’s locker room and several cadets of minority faiths were harassed or humiliated by fellow cadets who were evangelicals. Some Christian chaplains were accused of telling cadets to warn nonbelievers they would go to hell if they did not become born-again Christians.

The parents of two Jewish students and a Lutheran minister complained that faculty or administrators inappropriately promoted their beliefs and attempted to convince others to abandon their faiths. The evangelicals also offered prayers to Jesus at events attended by cadets of differing faiths. In response to pressure on him, Mikey Weinstein of New Mexico, a Jewish alumnus of the academy, filed suit against the institution in October.

In August, Congress issued guidelines that required chaplains to minister to people of all faiths in a nondenominational setting. It caused an outcry from evangelical groups. In October, the congressmen and senators wrote their letter claiming that "non-sectarian" public prayers at events where airmen of many faiths would be present limited the religious freedom of Christian chaplains who wanted to pray in Jesus’ name.

The letter signed by Garrett and others read, in part: "The fact of the matter is that part of an evangelical minister’s mission is to evangelize…. This is not necessarily true of clergymen of other faiths whose missions may not have the same evangelical character. And, while chaplains who are evangelical ministers should be sensitive that not all students in their charge are comfortable with their evangelizing, we should not prohibit them from practicing their faith."

Paul Aronsohn, the congressional candidate aiming to unseat Garrett in the November mid-term elections, told The Jewish Standard, "Simply stated, proselytizing by government officials — whether they be appointed or elected — is wrong and should not be tolerated. Faith and religion play central, meaningful roles in people’s lives, but we should be very wary of elected officials who confuse celebrating religion with legislating it. As Americans who cherish our faith and our ability to practice it, we recognize the vital importance of maintaining the separation between Church and State, and we should demand that our elected officials recognize and respect it as well."

Last week revised guidelines were spurred by massive petition and letter-writing protests organized by evangelical groups. The rules now allow evangelicals in at the Air Force Academy to "adhere to their tenets" and participate only in religious activities that comply with their beliefs.

The revision also omits a statement in the earlier version that chaplains "should respect the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs" and no longer cautions top officers about promoting their personal religious views.

Did Monday morning change Garrett’s mind about proselytizing? Neuer doesn’t think so, but he does feel that there may be a chance to educate the congressman and will meet with him again.

Laurie Price Abram from the MetroWest Jewish Community Relations Committee said that Monday’s meeting was "a good opportunity because Garrett serves our constituents in Sussex County, and we attended with two key lay people — Steven Flatow, our chairman, and Elihu Davison, the vice chairman.

"We exchanged views and had a good conversation with him about our viewpoints in terms of the military academies being places where there are hierarchical conditions that impose on power balance. A military chaplain is an employee of the federal government and there is a constitutional balancing act that needs to be maintained between free expression and not having seeming government endorsement of a particular faith."

Michelle Presson, Garrett’s chief of staff, was present and thought it was a good meeting. "They seemed to be having an active and interesting dialogue, and they covered a whole range of issues, including Darfur, Israel, and the Air Force Academy.

"Before they left, they let the congressman know that they would be getting him details of what is really happening at the academy, and he is absolutely open to hearing that information from them. The door isn’t shut. The congressman likes to listen and to talk to his constituents. He is trying to bring as many different people to the table as possible and is interested in trying to develop a Jewish advisory committee, a project he began in December."

Garrett himself said, in an e-mail, "I have always had strong relations with the North Jersey Jewish community, and I am hopeful that this meeting marks the beginning of a real open dialogue with the ADL in particular. I think we all discovered that we share a lot of common goals and beliefs. But there’s a lot more we can learn from one another on issues ranging from religious freedom to foreign affairs and I look forward to continuing to grow this relationship."

In the meantime, the Pentagon is standing by the revisions.

"This interim guidance outlines the basic principles we expect all military and civilian airmen to follow as we solidify formal policy," said Lt. Gen. Roger Brady, Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel, according to a Pentagon news release.

"This does affirm every airman’s right, even the commanders’ right, to free exercise of religion, and that means sharing your faith," said Maj. Gen. Charles C. Baldwin, the Air Force’s chief of chaplains.

Baldwin told the Washington Post that the changes reflect the criticism from evangelicals.

"I think that my evangelical friends were concerned that we did limit, and somehow restrict, the chaplains’ service, for example, because the guidance said chaplains should be ‘as sensitive to those who do not welcome offerings of faith as they are generous in sharing their faith with those who do.’"

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