Atheist Groups Lodge Complaint With DoD Over Prayers at Military Graduation Ceremonies

WASHINGTON — Two prominent atheist activist organizations have lodged a complaint with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) after reportedly being contacted by service members who are uncomfortable with the prayers presented at military graduation ceremonies, as well as other activities.

“According to numerous reports from cadets, service members, and their families, graduation ceremonies at military training facilities across the country consistently include a prayer delivered by a military chaplain,” wrote the groups American Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) to General James Mattis.

“Recruits at each of these facilities are required to attend the graduation ceremony, adorned in dress uniforms, and standing in formation. Each of the training facilities encourages cadets’ family members to attend the ceremony. Those family members are then instructed to stand during the delivery of the prayer,” they stated.

The atheist organizations also allege that prayers have been presented at Marine Corp Recruit Depot San Diego prior to the Crucible, the grueling 54-hour test that cadets must complete successfully in order to become a Marine.

“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from coercing any citizen into participating in religious exercise,” American Atheists and FFRF asserted. “Military chaplains may provide religious services to those who seek them out, but their mission does not include proselytizing or infusing secular ceremonies with the chaplain’s personal religious beliefs. Graduation ceremonies held at military training facilities involve all cadets, not just those of one religious faith.”

The groups additionally claim that those who opt not to attend worship services on Sundays are given menial tasks to perform.

“Replacing expulsion with grunt work or other disfavored treatment as the consequence of avoiding worship services is equally impermissible. Such practices not only violate the Establishment Clause for the reasons laid out above, but also run afoul of the Due Process Clause,” they wrote.

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American Atheists and FFRF have requested that Mattis take action so as to end the graduation prayers and reported practice of giving duties to those who opt not to attend weekly worship services.

“In order to remedy these violations of the rights of cadets, their family members, and the service members assigned to military training facilities, the signatory organizations respectfully request that the Department of Defense immediately take steps to ensure that these violations do not occur in the future. We ask you to meet with us to discuss these concerns and work together to find viable solutions,” the correspondence stated.


Read the letter in full here.

According to the National Archives, on July 9, 1776, General George Washington wrote in his orders concerning the Continental Army:

“The honorable Continental Congress having been pleased to allow a chaplain to each regiment, with the pay of thirty-three dollars and one third per month—the colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure chaplains accordingly; persons of good character and exemplary lives—to see that all inferior officers and soldiers pay them a suitable respect and attend carefully upon religious exercises. The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary, but especially so in times of public distress and danger. The General hopes and trusts, that every officer, and man, will endeavour so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian soldier defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country.”

He also exhorted on May 2, 1778, “While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian. The signal instances of providential goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labors with complete success, demand from us in a peculiar manner the warmest returns of gratitude & piety to the Supreme Author of all good.”

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