PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — A Texas-based religious liberties legal group is pushing back against an atheist activist organization’s efforts 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 First Liberty Institute sent a letter on Tuesday to Col. James Ryan, the commanding officer at Pease Air National Guard Base, to advise that it believes the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) assertions about the prayers are fallacious.
“The FFRF’s position and legal argument are incorrect. Federal law, military regulations, and court precedents belie the FFRF’s specious claims. Uniformed chaplains are clearly permitted, indeed protected, when they offer invocations at military functions,” senior counsel Mike Berry wrote.
He pointed to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the National Defense Authorization Act, as well as the Department of Defense (DoD) instruction entitled “Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services.” Berry said that under these rules, “the DoD must accommodate individual expressions of religious belief, which undoubtedly include a military chaplain’s invocation.”
First Liberty also noted the 1997 federal court ruling in Rigdon v. Perry, which upheld the rights of two chaplains who desired to preach in favor of banning partial-birth abortion.
“In Rigdon v. Perry, a federal court explained that when military chaplains are acting in a religious capacity—such as when conducting a sermon or offering an invocation—they are not acting under color of military authority, and ‘it is wholly appropriate for them to advance their religious beliefs in that context,'” Berry noted.
“Thus, when military chaplains engage in religious conduct, their conduct is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution,” he said, concluding that the U.S. Constitution, federal law and DoD regulations alike all permit chaplain-led prayer at military events.
“Moreover, those legal authorities actually forbid military commanders from censoring or prohibiting such invocations,” Berry contended.
As previously reported, last month, FFRF sent a letter to base leadership to assert that the inclusion of the chaplain-led invocations and Scripture readings at official Air National Guard ceremonies is unconstitutional. It said that it had been 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.
The base has not yet released a statement or decision about the matter.
As previously reported, 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.”