The Freedom From Religion Foundation is expressing its strong concern at the heavy infusion of religion into Air National Guard ceremonies at a base in New Hampshire.
A concerned guardsman informed FFRF that ceremonies at the Pease Air National Guard Base regularly have chaplains delivering invocations. These include readings from the bible and references to a Christian god. Attendance at these ceremonies is mandatory for all guardsmen.
FFRF reminds the Air National Guard that such ceremonies are illegal under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
"Federal courts have held that scheduling prayers or other religious exercises at mandatory meetings for government employees constitutes illegal government endorsement of religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover writes to the base's legal department. "Prayers at military events similarly appear to reasonable observers to endorse religion over nonreligion. This is exactly the type of endorsement that is prohibited by the Constitution's Establishment Clause, and also creates a hostile work environment for minority religious and nonreligious guardsmen."
Besides, FFRF emphasizes, these prayers are unnecessary and divisive. Calling upon soldiers, their families and guests to pray is beyond the scope of a governmental entity such as the Air National Guard. It must refrain from lending its power and prestige to religion, since this amounts to a governmental endorsement that excludes the approximately one-fourth of military personnel who either express no religious preference or are atheists. (Not to mention that such official conduct is insensitive, too.)
"Air National Guard officials are being incredibly presumptuous in asking everyone to join in a Christian ceremony," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Such forced recruitment at mandatory gatherings needs to cease."
FFRF is asking the Air National Guard to protect the rights of conscience of every guardsman and end the practice of including prayers at official ceremonies and other base events.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization that works to protect the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. It represents more than 26,000 nonreligious members across the country, including in New Hampshire. The organization is working on this issue both as a state/church watchdog group and on behalf of its more than 6,000 members who are in the military or are veterans.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is pleased to announce that its lawsuit against Shelton, Conn., has been successfully settled after the city halted its discriminatory policy.
FFRF, with local member Jerome Bloom, filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Connecticut, in March 2016, after the city refused to allow them to place a nonreligious winter solstice display in Constitution Park. Yet, the city had allowed the American Legion to place a religious display featuring "heralding angels" there every December for at least four years. FFRF sued over impermissible viewpoint discrimination.
The city had even deemed FFRF's proposed display "offensive to many." FFRF's display reads: "At this Season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
The joint settlement agreement indicates the city agrees not to allow private unattended displays in Constitution Park. The city agreed that anywhere it "allows private parties to erect unattended displays . . . it will allow plaintiffs to erect a display in that park, without regard to the content or viewpoint . . . so long as plaintiffs' display complies with any neutral, written city policies regarding such displays."
It also formally stipulates that Huntington Green, an open space in the city, is a "public forum for private unattended displays."
Late last year, the city disallowed displays in Constitution Park, including the American Legion's angel display. It also permitted FFRF to place its winter solstice display in Huntington Park, where the city also permitted a Christian nativity display. Unfortunately, FFRF's sign was mutilated and destroyed.
The city also agreed to pay FFRF its filing fees and other legal costs of $936.50.
"We are pleased the city of Shelton will no longer discriminate against atheists and other nonbelievers in its public forums, and that it has closed the forum at Constitution Park," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. Barker indicated that FFRF and Bloom will continue to erect a winter solstice display in Huntington Green as long as religious displays are put up, and added: "We question that it's truly a public forum if dissenting points of view are vandalized. We'll be back in December, but will be asking for additional protection of our display."
FFRF warmly thanks Jerome Bloom for making possible the legal victory.
FFRF was represented by attorney Laurence J. Cohen, of Springfield, Mass., with FFRF Attorneys Elizabeth Cavell and Ryan Jayne, who is FFRF's Eric Stone Legal Fellow, serving as co-counsel.