U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz at the Pentagon, who recently retired. Schwartz was criticized by both sides for his handling of religion in the military.
Just days before retiring as Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Norton Schwartz issued a document designed to dictate the conduct of U.S. airmen worldwide — all violations enforceable by military law. For the first time, amid regulations on tattoo size and flag handling etiquette, it laid down the law on religious proselytizing by leaders: Don’t do it.
Section 2.11 of the 27-page Air Force Instruction AFI 1-1 Standards of Conduct is the latest salvo in a battle over religious bias and Christian proselytizing in the military branch. It calls on officers and supervisors to "avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion."
The document's section on religion echoes a memo Schwartz sent out to all Air Force leadership on religion last September, but adds the threat of penalty for violations.
"COMPLIANCE WITH THIS PUBLICATION IS MANDATORY," the memo says in bold, adding that "failure to adhere to the standards set out in this instruction can form the basis for adverse action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)."
"It carries a lot of weight inasmuch as it’s careful to point out that an individual who violates it can be subject to court martial," said Gary Solis, who teaches military law at Georgetown University. "So the things that are covered in the document, which are very wide ranging, open up violations to court martial prosecution, that is federal conviction should there be a conviction. So it carries significant weight."
What is harder to predict is how AFI 1-1 — called by an Air Force Press release "the capstone act" of Schwartz’s 29-year career — will be interpreted, distributed and enforced where it applies to religion.
"It certainly is important and binding ... and it could lead to punishment. But then it could lead to punishment if you wear your hat backwards," said Elizabeth Hillman, professor of law at University of California Hastings College of Law and President of the National Institute of Military Justice. "It is still going to be up to individual commanding officers to decide what’s OK and what’s not. They have a great deal of discretion."
As in U.S. public institutions more broadly, there has been a long string of battles between those in the military who want to root out religious content and others, mainly fundamentalist Christians, who argue that to do so impinges on religious freedom.
Related: Outrage, calls for action over anti-Muslim materials in military training
Related: Marine werewolves transform into Crusaders, and back again
The conflicts have arisen over military leadership promoting Christian religious meetings through official channels, military courses incorporating Biblical material in coursework, officers trying to convert non-Christians and allegedly favoring "born again" Christians and using Christian doctrine and imagery in logos and official military materials and Christian prayer in official events.
The military has been sued for using Christian doctrine to recruit new members, and pressured to change logos and review course materials that incorporate Christian doctrine, and more recently, those that are anti-Islam.
In 2006, after complaints by non-Christians that they were being pressured by evangelicals to convert, the Air Force issued guidelines cautioning superiors from pressing their personal religious views on subordinates. But months later they eased the guidelines after Christian conservatives argued that the guidelines restricted freedom of religion.
In Aug. 2011, in a victory for trying to extricate religion from military business, the Air Force suspended a course called “Christian Just War Theory” — which had been required for missile officers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The PowerPoint for the class drew heavily upon Bible passages and Christian imagery to teach morals and ethics of launching nuclear weapons. In the class students were taught based on a passage in the Book of Revelations that Jesus Christ is a "mighty warrior" who believed some wars to be just, according to Truthout.com which broke the story.
Military Religious Freedom Foundation
A public billboard in Colorado Springs contains the entirety of U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz's Sept. 1, 2011 directive on religious neutrality. The billboard was put up by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to assure that it was widely disseminated.
Shortly after this revelation, Schwartz issued a memo using language almost identical to that used in AFI 1-1 calling on all Air Force leaders to "avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion."
He went on to say that opportunities for worship, religious studies and prayer meetings can be promoted by chaplains, but not by commanders. And he instructed those who felt they were facing unfair bias on the basis of religion to contact a military attorney.
In response to the memo, and other moves, 66 members of Congress led by Randy Forbes, president of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, wrote a letter of protest to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta blaming Schwartz for an "alarming pattern of attacks on faith in the Air Force."
"We believe this statement exemplifies the troubling 'complete separation' approach that is creating a chilling effect down the chain of command as airmen attempt to comply," it said, according to a report in Air Force Times.
For those who advocate a "complete separation" of church and state, the Schwartz memo would have been a victory, except that some commanders refused to disseminate the memo, according to Mikey Weinstein, founder of the nonprofit Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
That omission prompted MRFF to receive "a literal torrent of complaints" from military members who Weinstein says are afraid to directly confront the pervasive Christian culture in the Air Force.
The organization invested in a large billboard down the street from the academy containing the text of the entire memo.
As for dissemination of AFI 1-1, the Air Force has a plan "to ensure all Air Force personnel have access to this Instruction," said Air Force spokesman Capt. Derek White.
White did not have the Aug. 7 instruction before speaking to NBC News on Aug. 20.
Forbes of the Congressional Prayer Caucus did not respond to a request for comment on the new regulations.
For Weinstein, it remains to be seen if AFI 1-1 marks a move in the right direction — and it depends on distribution and enforcement.
"It looks very nice," he said. "The problem is if you create a mandate that is complied with more frequently in the breech than in the conformance you create a problem 100 times worse than if you had not created the mandate in the first place ... It is looked at with scorn and derision."
Weinstein, who has been involved in dozens of battles to extricate religious materials from military settings, recently lambasted Schwartz for his "scandalously non-confrontational approach to the Christian extremist predators" in the Air Force.
"It was a transparent and likely guilt-ridden concession by Schwartz, yet it was both too little and too late," Weinstein wrote in an op-ed article. "With Schwartz’s butt-covering, last second, 'midnight drive-by' delivery of AFI 1-1, we have no alternative left but to look to the new USAF Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, to show the all-too-rare backbone once required of all top leaders within the U.S. Military."
Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School, said the document could make a difference in Air Force culture.
"It’s one thing for a Chief of Staff of the Air Force to issue a letter that goes around," said Fidell. "It is another to put it in permanent form so the next chief won’t take a different approach. I think for him to have done what he did ... I think it was appropriate and gutsy."
More content from NBCNews.com:
Follow US News from NBCNews.com on Twitter and Facebook
Follow Kari Huus on Facebook