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PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (ChurchMilitant.com) - Military chaplains are responding to an allegation by an atheist group, attacking the use of prayers and Bible readings during ceremonies at an Air National Guard base.
In February, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to Lt. Col. Thaddeus Day on behalf of a "concerned guardsman," who complained about the use of chaplains at military ceremonies at Pease Air National Guard Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
The letter reads, "Air National Guard ceremonies ... regularly include invocations led by a chaplain. These prayers regularly include readings from the Bible and references to the Christian god [sic]. We understand that attendance at many of these events is mandatory for guardsmen."
Sam Grover, the FFRF attorney who drafted the letter, called praying "unnecessary and divisive" and said it was "coercive and beyond the scope of a government entity" to promote it.
He concluded, "Federal courts have held that scheduling prayers or other religious exercises at mandatory meetings for government employees constitutes illegal government endorsement of religion." He further asserted: "Prayers at military events similarly appear to reasonable observers to endorse religion over nonreligion. This is exactly the type of government endorsement that is prohibited by our Constitution's Establishment Clause and also creates a hostile work environment for minority religious and nonreligious guardsmen."
Mike Berry, senior counsel for the First Liberty Institute, represents the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, a group that represents over 2,600 military chaplains of different faiths.
In a letter dated March 14, Berry contacted the commanding officer of Pease Air Force Base declaring, "I write to emphasize there is no legal requirement for you to give in to the FFRF's demands." He clarifies, "Their demands appear to be based on the flawed notion that military chaplains cannot offer invocations at [Air National Guard] functions." He adds, "The FFRF's position and legal argument are incorrect."
Berry refers to two laws specifically addressing the exercise of religious practices during military ceremonies.
The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he notes, "forbids the federal government, including the Department of Defense (DOD), from substantially burdening a person's religious exercise absent a demonstrated compelling government interest that is achieved by the least restrictive means."
He also brings up the National Defense Authorization Act, commenting that it allows freedom of religious practice "absent an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion or good order and discipline, the DOD must accommodate individual expressions of religious belief, which undoubtedly include a military chaplain's invocation."
He further notes, "Contrary to the FFRF's assertion, there is no exception when such individual expressions occur during military functions." He adds, "Federal law, military regulations and court precedents belie the FFRF's specious claims. Uniformed chaplains are clearly permitted, indeed protected, when they offer invocations at military functions."