February 2013 Church & State | Featured

Until 1972, cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point were required to attend a religious service every weekend. They could choose between a Protestant, Catholic or Jewish service.

It took a federal court ruling to stop mandatory worship at West Point and the other service academies. And now, more than 40 years later, Americans United is asking officials at West Point to take the next step and stop imposing prayer on cadets who don’t want to take part.

In a letter to Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. David H. Huntoon and other officials, Americans United asserted that the academy’s prayer policy runs afoul of the Constitution and violates the rights of cadets.

“West Point cadets should be able to train for service in our nation’s military without having religion forced upon them,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn in a press statement. “Academy officials must respect the religious liberty rights of all cadets, who should be free to make their own decisions about prayer without government coercion.”

The issue came to a head after several cadets complained to Americans United that prayers are included in events such as Plebe Parent Weekend, Yearling Winter Weekend, Thanksgiving Dinner, Christmas Dinner, the Thayer Award Dinner, the Martin Luther King Award Dinner, 500th Night, 100th Night, Ring Weekend and graduation.

AU asserts in its Dec. 19 letter that these events “are milestones in the careers of West Point cadets, and all require cadets’ attendance.” The inclusion of prayers, AU says, “creates a pervasive atmosphere of religiosity and cannot be reconciled with the…First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

The letter notes that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1972 struck down a regulation requiring West Point cadets to attend religious services and that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Virginia Military Institute’s policy of presenting prayers at school meals in 2003.

The letter, signed by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith, goes on to assert, “Being forced to attend an event that includes a prayer is at the heart of the kind of religious coercion that the Constitution prohibits…. The government does not have to physically force someone to utter a prayer or to genuflect before God in order to run afoul of that prohibition.”

West Point became the focus of controversy recently after a cadet named Blake Page quit just months shy of graduation, charging that the institution is rife with fundamentalist Christian proselytizing.

Page, an atheist, claimed that he has faced discrimination for his views and was told by his superiors that he would not be an effective leader until he “fills the hole in his heart” – that is, converts to Christianity.

Page, backed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), made a round of media appearances. In the wake of his story, other cadets have been speaking out. Several of them contacted Americans United.

AU’s letter sparked an outcry from Religious Right groups. Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former Navy chaplain who was forced out of the service for violating military regulations, insisted that chuch-state separation is not in the Constitution.

“And it doesn’t mean to limit military prayers,” he told OneNewsNow. “The easiest way to prove that is that in 1802, Thomas Jefferson himself personally signed the Navy regulations, ordering chaplains to lead prayers on Navy ships.”

William “Jerry” Boykin, a former Army general who now serves as vice-president of Family Research Council, told Fox News Radio, “Barry Lynn’s objective is to destroy Christianity in America. It has nothing to do with wanting to support the First Amendment under his understanding of it.”

Boykin, who came under fire during his time in the military for intemperate comments about Islam, added, “Prayer at West Point is a tradition. Because it is a tradition that derives from Christianity, Barry and others want to destroy that tradition because they are anti-Christian and want to erase any remnant of the influence of Christianity on our society.”

Klingenschmitt and other defenders of West Point’s prayer policy have tried to draft Jefferson as an ally. The argument was even employed by top military officials in 2010, after the Freedom From Religion Foundation protested nightly prayers on board Navy ships.

As usual, there is more to the story. Chris Rodda, author of the book Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History and research director for the MRFF, notes that Jefferson merely signed off on a long list of regulations for naval officials that had been created by the John Adams administration in 1799.

The regulations are several pages long and cover duties for just about every position in the Navy that existed at the time. Nightly prayers were part of the chaplain’s duties, but Jefferson didn’t institute the practice.

James Madison, widely regarded as the father of the Constitution, believed that military chaplains were unconstitutional. Many Americans apparently agreed. As Rodda notes, the issue flared up in the mid-19th century, and Congress was flooded with petitions from religious organizations and citizens demanding an end to all taxpayer-funded chaplains.

A bundle of petitions (often called “memorials” at the time) that were presented to Congress on Dec. 8, 1851, are typical of the dozens that were received. According to congressional records, one representative “presented a petition of citizens of New Jersey, two petitions of citizens of Delaware, a petition and a memorial of citizens of Missouri, the memorial of citizens of Vermont, a petition of citizens of Indiana, two memorials of citizens of Illinois, and two memorials of citizens of Pennsylvania, praying that the office of Chaplain, in the public service, may be abolished.”

West Point officials have also asserted that participation in events that open with prayer is voluntary. Americans United says this is not a persuasive argument and notes that many cadets want to attend the events – they just don’t want prayer imposed on them.

In addition, the right to be excused is more theoretical than real. To be excused, a cadet must submit a formal request in writing to his or her chain of command – a cumbersome process that leaves the dissenter open to possible retaliation from superiors.

AU’s Lynn said that West Point should drop official prayers rather than be sued, as it was over its church attendance requirement 40 years ago.

“America is increasingly diverse, and so is the student body at West Point,” Lynn said. “We must stop thinking that a ‘one size fits all’ prayer works for everyone. It doesn’t.”