The Freedom From Religion Foundation has nudged a state-run criminal justice academy in Maine to address religious rituals at the institution.
FFRF sent a letter of warning last month to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro after it was brought to the state/church watchdog group’s attention that an instructor of the academy had been conducting group prayers with trainees before meals. The prayers have been occurring during group meals, creating a divisive environment in which those who do not wish to participate in the religious ritual must either sit quietly or leave the room, singling them out.
FFRF reminded the academy that it is a fundamental principle of the First Amendment that the government cannot promote, advance or otherwise appear to endorse religion. This prayer practice does just that. The transmission of religious beliefs — like imposing prayer on a group — is something that must take place in a private sphere, not in a government establishment.
Besides the legal issues with delivering religious invocations, ending prayer is simply good policy — especially when nearly one-quarter of Americans identify as nonreligious.
“Prayer at government-sponsored events is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line in a letter sent to the academy’s director. “While individuals are certainly free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way, calling upon trainees to pray is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular government.”
Religion tends to be divisive, and prayer can lead to feelings of hostility within a group by making religious minorities feel like political outsiders in their own community.
FFRF received an email response from Maine Criminal Justice Academy Director John Rogers agreeing that proper religious observance by instructors and students at the academy was an issue that needed to be discussed.
“My assistant director and I intend to speak about these issues with staff members so that our faculty will be fully informed and better prepared to address these types of issues should they arise in the future,” wrote Rogers.
FFRF salutes the academy for tackling the concern and taking steps toward a more inclusive environment.
“Insensitivity towards the personal beliefs of others is not an ideal environment for a criminal justice trainee to develop and hone his or her viewpoints and skills in,” says FFRF Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The academy could easily remedy these concerns by simply discontinuing mealtime prayers.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit with more than 29,000 members and chapters nationwide, including more than 500 members in Maine and a state chapter. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.