Stop promoting religion, chaplains and prayer, FFRF chides the FBI

FBI Academy

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is admonishing the FBI for conducting Christian devotions and otherwise unconstitutionally promoting religion.

An FBI employee has informed the national state/church watchdog about serious concerns regarding increased religious promotion within the Bureau. The FBI reportedly has a chaplain offer a Christian invocation at FBI graduation ceremonies and allows religious figures into the VIP section during FBI Academy events. The complainant has also reported that last summer, an FBI supervisor (Assistant Director Renae McDermott) forwarded an email from the Academy chaplain to all employees reminding them “that there is a divine power in charge of all things. You are all very much appreciated and I have been praying for you and your loved ones each week. . . . I have restocked the chapel with Bibles, MP3 sticks and tracts for all.”

Scheduling prayers at FBI events such as Academy graduation ceremonies is unconstitutional and a violation of rights of conscience, FFRF informs the FBI.

“It is a fundamental constitutional principle that publicly funded institutions cannot support, promote or otherwise endorse religion or engage in religious exercises,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to McDermott. “Therefore, it is inappropriate for a public institution such as the FBI Academy to schedule an invocation as part of a secular graduation ceremony.”

Furthermore, FFRF adds, a call to FBI agents, their families and friends, and officers — who may be of varying faiths or no faith — for collective prayer is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of a government training academy. The FBI ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement of religion that excludes the 24 percent of Americans who are not religious — including, quite certainly, FBI trainees.

Prayers at FBI Academy events are especially coercive. Although the prayer may technically have been voluntary, agents would likely interpret a commanding officer’s suggestion to participate in the prayer as a command and would likely be unwilling to publicly dissent because of potential negative consequences on their new career.

The Academy’s chaplain program and chapel, regularly stocked reportedly with bibles and other Christian materials, also conveys a message that the FBI endorses religion in general and Christianity in particular. This endorsement violates the Establishment Clause of the First amendment to the U.S. Constitution, since law enforcement agencies acting in their official capacities may not proselytize or promote religion. Chaplains are not meant to proselytize to government employees or send out emails reminding government employees that “there is a divine power in charge of all things,” or that they “have been praying for you.” Nor should McDermott be sending these kinds of religious messages to her employees through her official FBI email account as assistant director. That’s why, FFRF advises, the Academy should end its chaplaincy program, perhaps replacing it with a secular alternative.

FFRF is requesting the FBI to abide by the Constitution and is putting in a Freedom of Information Act request to ensure that the nation’s law-enforcement agency indeed does that.

“The FBI is meant to be setting a standard for the entire country in constitutional matters, including secularism,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Instead, it is engaging in practices that are alienating to its non-Christian trainees — and to the nation’s non-Christian population at large.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members and several chapters all across the United States. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Photo of the FBI Academy in the Public Domain

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

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