Sailors forced to hear shipboard prayer

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has renewed its objections to constitutional violations occurring aboard U.S. Navy ships.

In a May 20 letter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel urged Mabus to order an end to the practice of broadcasting official nightly prayers over ships’ loudspeakers.

“We recently received complaints about prayers on the USS Momsen, but the practice is widespread. We have received complaints from service members and civilians about prayers on other vessels, including the USS Abraham Lincoln,” Seidel said.

FFRF and six other secular groups also wrote Mabus to protest the practice in 2010.

“It is our information and understanding that Navy ships broadcast a prayer every night over the intercom system,” Seidel said. “The prayers are announced with ‘Tattoo, tattoo, stand by for the evening prayer.’ We understand that the loudspeakers are typically reserved for official business such as events, meal times and emergencies. The prayers are invariably delivered by Christians, typically the chaplain or a chaplain designee, and broadcast a Christian message.”

It’s also FFRF’s understanding the prayer is broadcast on all areas of the ship, including private staterooms, and that on some ships, televisions are remotely turned off during the prayer.

“This practice is coercive and a violation of the very document — the Constitution — every sailor promises to uphold upon joining the Navy,” Seidel wrote. “Sailors should not be compelled to participate in or show obeisance to official prayers while serving the country that invented the separation of state and church.”

FFRF also contends the prayers are an unconstitutional endorsement of religion over nonreligion and illegally compel military personnel to participate.

“These prayers, patently religious exercises clearly endorsed by the Navy, are inescapable, regardless of the religious belief of the listener. By broadcasting the religious rituals over the loudspeakers so that no sailor can avoid them, the Navy is effectively compelling attendance and expecting participation in the religious ritual.”

Other factors contributing to the coercive nature of the prayers:

  • The loudspeaker is used for official announcements. The signal preceding the prayers, “Tattoo, Tattoo,” is the alert for lights out. This gives the prayers the quality of an order, not a suggestion.
  • The public nature of the ritual creates an environment for religious peer pressure. Each ship is meant to be a uniform fighting unit. This practice makes religion a relevant factor in acceptance to that unit. But there is no good reason religion should be relevant and every legal reason it should not be.
  • TVs automatically going off at prayer time are reminiscent of the telescreens in George Orwell’s 1984. The Thought Police monitor and change the volume and programming on telescreens at will, including airing daily moments of reverence to Big Brother and hate toward his enemies.

Seidel added, “There is no need for the top-down imposition of religious rituals on every sailor aboard, regardless of their personal religious convictions or lack thereof. Sailors can freely worship in their own way on their own time. They will still be able to say a blessing at meals, attend religious services, kneel before going to sleep, and visit and pray with chaplains if they wish.”

Copies of the letter also went to several other top military officials, including the president and secretary of defense.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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