Army Allows for Sectarian Prayer at Mandatory Events
Last month, MAAF received two reports of sectarian Christian prayer at mandatory military events. At Ft Campbell, a battalion chaplain was leading his unit in prayer during regular morning formations. At Ft Benning, a senior NCO reported mandatory graduation ceremonies often include prayer “in Jesus’s Name”. An Army spokesperson declared these practices entirely within Army policy. These issues arise not due to individuals taking offense at prayer, but rather due to officers using their authority to promote religion. Non-Christians are made to feel like lesser members of the unit who need to hide their beliefs or pretend to be Christian in order to have the full support of the command.
The 1st Amendment provides for free exercise of religion for individuals and prohibits establishment of religion in government. This has created great legal difficulty for government officials wishing to use their official duties for prayers. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of limited, optional nonsectarian prayer (Marsh v Chambers, 463 US 783 (1983)). There is a dizzying array of legal precedent regarding government-sponsored prayer and religious activity, but the core concept is clear – that the government should be neutral toward religion.
MAAF contacted the Army regarding their policy on sectarian prayer, especially at mandatory events such as graduations and if the Army had a policy regarding “nonsectarian” prayer. Army spokesman George Wright provided only the following response:
The Army doesn’t mandate how a chaplain ought to pray.
The Army has the best interests of some chaplains in mind but seems to be overlooking entirely over 500,000 soldiers in the active component. The question is not of how chaplains pray, but rather how they pray to captive military audiences. Chaplains are given a captive audience to serve the best interests of the military, not as an accommodation of their personal religious practices. The Army is not providing for free exercise of religion, but are instead providing an unregulated government platform for evangelism.
This may seem fair until we remember that 98% of chaplains are Christian. This creates an unavoidable impression of government promotion of Christianity. To avoid this appearance of government promotion of one belief over others, many government agencies and even chaplains opt for nonsectarian prayer to “God” rather than Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, or another specific deity. This still excludes nontheists but it is at least nonsectarian. The only way to ensure government neutrality toward religion is for commanders to avoid prayer at mandatory events.
At Ft Campbell, the MAAF report notified the battalion commander of a prayer he had not authorized. The battalion commander immediately ended prayer at morning formations. The chaplain was instructed to provide for the free exercise of religion of the soldiers within the command but that the command itself was neutral toward religion and required no prayers. At Ft Benning, young trainees are likely still hearing prayers to Jesus at their mandatory graduation ceremonies.
Mandatory military ceremonies are no place to mandate religion. Certain optional events, like personal retirements or individual award ceremonies are also appropriate places for prayer if an individual wishes to have add that to the event. This is in addition to the ample facilities and scheduled opportunities for worship services. Troops may also choose to pray as a group separate from mandatory formations, so long as there is no appearance of command endorsement or social pressure.
When Army leaders are allowed to insert prayer into mandatory military events at will, the government clearly marginalizes those with nontheistic beliefs. When the Army allows for sectarian prayer and has a chaplaincy 98% Christian, there is a clear privileging of Christianity within government. When less than 70% of the military self-identifies as Christian, the Army chaplaincy and a few leaders are in a position to alienate a large portion of their units with unwanted prayer.
Chaplains are increasingly undermining their credibility to serve the diversity of the modern military. Failure to reach out to atheists and humanists, lack of accountability, reinforcement of barriers to diversity, questionable oversight of Spiritual Fitness, biased chaplaincy resources, and blockage of humanist identity are all red flags for the chaplaincy’s ability to embrace the new nontheist diversity in the military. It may be time for top Army leadership to step in to reform chaplain services. The first step should be to break the news that status as an Army chaplain is not a free pass to evangelize a captive audience.