On Tuesday, First Liberty Institute sent a letter to the commander of New Hampshire’s Pease Air National Guard Base, advising him that federal law, military regulations, and the Constitution all allow prayer and Bible readings by chaplains at military events.
First Liberty’s letter—signed by Senior Counsel Mike Berry, Director of First Liberty’s Military Affairs Division—was in response to a February 6 demand by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) that the base commander ban invocations at military events.
The FFRF sends out scare letters across the country but rarely carries through on its threats. The group’s website says, “With more than 27,000 members, the nonprofit FFRF works as an effective state/church watchdog and voice for freethought (atheism, agnosticism, skepticism).”
The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, an organization of chaplain endorsers that speaks for nearly half of all chaplains in the military, asked First Liberty Institute to advise the Air Force base on the constitutionality of the chaplains’ prayers in light of FFRF’s actions.
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
“The Constitution, federal law, and Department of Defense regulations all support your practice of permitting uniformed chaplains to offer invocations at command functions,” says First Liberty’s advisory letter to the commanding base officer. “Moreover, those legal authorities actually forbid military commanders from censoring or prohibiting such invocations.”
“It is perfectly constitutional for military chaplains to offer prayers and Bible readings during ceremonies,” wrote Berry, a former Marine Corps judge advocate that has taught law at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“Military chaplains exist to ensure all service members have the right to free exercise of their religion,” Chaplain (Colonel) Ron Crews, U.S. Army (Retired), Executive Director for the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, says. He added:
“The prayers and Bible readings they offer at Pease Air National Guard Base are one of many ways they faithfully discharge that duty. Their faithful service should be respected, not attacked.”
First Liberty contends that FFRF demands appear to be based on the flawed notion that military chaplains cannot offer invocations at Air National Guard functions. Berry asserts that uniformed chaplains are clearly permitted, indeed protected, when they offer invocations at military functions.
STRONG CASE FOR LEGAL PRAYER
For example, First Liberty’s rebuttal to the FFRF cites the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which in part forbids the federal government, including the Department of Defense, from substantially burdening a person’s religious exercise absent a demonstrated compelling government interest that is achieved by the least restrictive means.
Berry then cites the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act. That Act contains language saying that unless there is adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, or good order and discipline, the Defense Department must accommodate individual expressions of religious belief, which undoubtedly include a military chaplain’s invocation.
Contrary to the FFRF’s assertion, says Berry, there is no exception when such individual expressions occur during military functions.
TWO THINGS THAT SHOULD HAPPEN
Still, the matter is not settled.
Berry says he hopes two things happen.
First, Colonel James P. Ryan, the Commanding Officer of Pease Air National Guard Base, needs to stand firm, understand that the law stands behind him and the chaplains, and not acquiesce to FFRF’s demands.
Second, President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a platform and promise of restoring religious freedom to areas such as the military, should make it clear that hostility against religion in the military must end.
Surveys have shown that religious faith is prevalent among members of the military. And a commission ordered by President Harry Truman concluded that religious faith is critical to the fitness and preparedness of America’s fighting forces. Many serve in life-threatening situations, and virtually all miss family and home for long stretches of time. In this sacrifice, religious faith adds stability, courage, and strength. And that is good for America.
“We hope our Commander in Chief will reverse this trend toward religious hostility,” says Berry, “so that America’s military can remain strong and resilient.”
To learn more about religious freedom in the U.S. military, go read First Liberty Institute’s Religious Liberty Protection Kit for the U.S. Military.
News and Commentary is brought to you by First Liberty’s team of writers and legal experts.
Dear Coach Kennedy,
I would like to say thank you. Your dedication to your faith and your commitment to the positive education of our youth is truly admirable. I am deeply grateful for your military service and for taking a courageous stance in protecting religious liberty rights for teachers and administrators.
If our First Amendment protects a player’s right to kneel in protest, it certainly protects your right to kneel in prayer.
I was shocked to learn that Bremerton High School suspended you after denying your request to continue your wholesome practice of giving thanks after football games.
The Bremerton School District’s actions violate the law and send the wrong message to coaches, young people, our communities, and our nation — a message of hostility to religious freedom and intolerance toward personal religious expression.
Please know that you are not alone in this difficult time — I support you and First Liberty as you continue to fight for religious freedom! Our schools need more coaches like you, our country needs more citizens like you, and our world needs more people like you.✖