PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — A prominent professing atheist organization is seeking to put an end to prayers and Bible readings that are presented by a chaplain during ceremonies at a Air National Guard base in New Hampshire.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) recently sent a letter to the leadership of Pease Air National Guard Base to assert that the inclusion of the invocations and Scripture readings are unconstitutional. It stated that it was contacted by a concerned guardsman, who informed them of the chaplain’s offerings.
“Christian prayers delivered at an official military event violate the Constitution’s mandate of government neutrality between religious beliefs,” FFRF contended. “Any prayer—including non-denominational prayer—violates the required neutrality between religion and nonreligion.”
“By imposing prayer on its guardsmen at mandatory events, the Air National Guard is violating the constitutional limits on government religious endorsement,” it said.
The organization also opined that the inclusion of the prayers is “unnecessary and divisive,” as well as “coercive” and “insensitive.” FFRF said that the invocations exclude those who don’t identify as atheists, and noted that military members are “free to pray privately or to worship on their own time.”
“The Air National Guard must refrain from lending its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a government endorsement that excludes the over 23% of military personnel who either express no religious preference or are atheists,” it said. “It is also simply insensitive for a government employer to inflict prayer on employees regardless of their personal beliefs.”
FFRF requested that it be assured in writing that the invocations would be discontinued at future events to “protect the rights of conscience” of guardsmen, such as those who do not share in the religious beliefs of the presenting chaplain.
“We ask that you protect the rights of conscience of every guardsman by ending the practice of including prayers at official ceremonies and other events,” it wrote. “Please inform us in writing of the actions that you intend to take to address this issue so that we may notify our complainant.”
While it is not yet known how the base plans to respond, United States Air Force Chaplain Sonny Hernandez told Christian News Network that he doesn’t believe the Constitution mandates that God must be kept out of military ceremonies, nor do any military policies require the separation of religion from government at official events. But even so, chaplains aren’t speaking on behalf of the government, he said.
“There is nothing in the Constitution, military policies, rules, law, or regulations that prohibit a military chaplain from offering prayer or Bible study to service members, as chaplains are mandated to perform their duties at all times, which are compatible with their respective ecclesiastical endorsing requirements,” he said.
“When a chaplain prays, they are not representing the government; they are representing their Department of Defense (DOD) approved ecclesiastical endorsing agency. Title Ten Code and Air Force Policy will concur (Air Force
Policy Directive 52-1, 3.6.2.),” Hernandez further noted.
He also explained that when chaplains offer invocations at ceremonies, members of the military are not required to pray with them, and there is no disciplinary action taken against those who opt not to join in the prayer.
Hernandez opined that FFRF’s argument that the prayers are “unnecessary and divisive” is likewise faulty as there is no constitutional right not to hear speech that one dislikes or finds offensive.
“FRFF must be reminded that the Constitution does not guarantee an individual the right that they will avoid dogma to which they are adamantly opposed,” he said. “FRFF is unable to articulate a tenable response to the recurrent constitutional policies, which does not prove that prayers and Bible readings are unnecessary or divisive—it only proves that the FRFF does not like Christian sentiments or adulation given to God.”
Hernandez outlined that he sees the matter more as the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion rather than a constitutional mandate to keep God out of the government.
“The First Amendment is applicable to all Americans, and no one, including the FRFF, has a right to suppress this inviolable liberty that an incalculable number of men and women have died to secure,” Hernandez said.
In 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee said to his troops, “Soldiers! We have sinned against Almighty God. We have forgotten His signal mercies, and have cultivated a revengeful, haughty and boastful spirit. We have not remembered that the defenders of a just cause should be pure in His eyes; that ‘our times are in His hands,’ and we have relied too much on our own arms for the achievement of our independence.”
“God is our only refuge and our strength. Let us humble ourselves before Him,” he declared. “Let us confess our many sins, and beseech Him to give us a higher courage, a purer patriotism, and more determined will; that He will hasten the time when war, with its sorrows and sufferings, shall cease, and that He will give us a name and place among the nations of the earth.”
Editor’s Note: Hernandez’ opinions are solely his and do not necessarily represent the views of any government, military or religious organization. Hernandez contributed to this report, an issue of public interest, as a civilian on his own time.