Dec 19, 2012

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today asked the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to stop including prayers during official events.

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 the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “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.

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

Several cadets have 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 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."

The AU letter requests a response within 30 days.