Prayers Stop at Iraq Base Last Week but No Word from Gates
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based national state/church watchdog, has been waiting a month for a reply to its letter to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, protesting mandatory Christian prayer and bible reading conducted by chaplains to a captive audience, as part of daily shift change briefings in the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Iraq.
The Foundation was contacted in October by an officer there who said at least three chaplains (two Army and one Air Force) instigated the prayer sessions five months previously. The 3rd ESC works 12-hour shifts, meaning mandatory Christian worship and ritual occurred at least twice a day. The complainant reported the chaplains continually read verses from the bible, followed by prayer invoking Jesus Christ.
In his e-mail to the Foundation, the officer, who is an atheist, noted, "I'm not doing this out of self-interest. I'm doing this because as a noncommissioned officer, part of my job is to look out for the interests of soldiers of lesser rank than me. This is not a Christian-exclusive club, but a group of highly diverse individuals with varying religious beliefs."
After discussing the problem with one of the offending chaplains, the officer said he was advised by an indignant chaplain that he could be "excused" from the necessary briefings. Lt. Col. Chaplain Harrison then told the officer that he was not forced to join the Army and should just accept the prayer before the meetings, noted Foundation staff attorney Rebecca S. Kratz in her Nov. 5 letter to Gates. The chaplain allegedly also admitted his intention to make all the enlisted men and women "his congregation."
"The chaplains' actions during these routine staff meetings effectively send the message that the U.S. military endorses religion," and favors Christianity over other religions, charged the Foundation. The practice of turning briefings into worship "unlawfully compels religious and nonreligious personnel to participate in religious exercises."
Kratz' 4-page legal brief details the extensive court precedent violated by these worship practices by the Army and Air Force chaplains. Kratz also cites the 2006 guidelines adopted by the Air Force following a proselytizing scandal at the Colorado Springs Academy, which state that that Air Force will "remain officially neutral regarding religious beliefs, neither officially endorsing nor disapproving any faith belief or absence of belief." The guidelines note that prayer cannot "usually be a part of routine official business."
The Foundation asked Gates to immediately investigate the claims, to take steps to remedy the violations, and to issue guidelines or directions to all branches of the armed forces on the military's need to stay neutral over religion.
Last week, the Foundation received a welcome e-mail from its complainant noting "there is no more mandatory prayer," saying it has been replaced with "This day in history" and "a moment of reflective silence."
"While we are delighted with this change, we have yet to receive any acknowledgment from the Pentagon of our complaint, or of its actions or its intentions to protect the First Amendment rights of nonreligious and nonChristian soldiers," said Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.
"The military abuses of the Establishment Clause are accelerating at an alarming rate. The Pentagon needs to be responsive and take proactive steps to uphold the rights of the enlisted under our secular Constitution.""