Atheist Groups demand end to prayers at military graduation ceremonies

Two leading atheist groups have lodged a complaint with the Department of Defense to demand an end to prayers presented at military graduation ceremonies and other activities.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and American Atheists have sent a complaint letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis last week, claiming that service members have been “forced” into religious observances during training.

The two groups claimed to have received several complaints alleging that military training facility administrators have included prayers during graduation ceremonies across the country and families in attendance are instructed to stand during the delivery of the prayer.

“By scheduling prayers in graduation ceremonies and leading cadets in prayer prior to examinations, the country’s military training facilities are violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” the letter read, as reported by Independent Journal Review.

“While military chaplains may provide religious services to those who seek them out, their mission does not include proselytizing or infusing secular ceremonies with the chaplain’s personal religious beliefs,” it continued.

The American Atheists and the FFRF also claimed that prayers were held at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego prior to the Crucible, a 54-hour test that must be completed by cadets before they could become Marines.

The two groups also alleged that those who decide not to attend worship services on Sundays are given menial tasks to perform.

“Replacing expulsion with grunt work or other disfavored treatment as the consequence of avoiding worship services is equally impermissible. Such practices not only violate the Establishment Clause for the reasons laid out above, but also run afoul of the Due Process Clause,” they wrote.

The secularist organizations have called on Mattis to “take steps immediately to ensure that these violations do not occur in the future,” noting that such actions amount to “religious coercion and discrimination.”

This was not the first time that the FFRF called for an end to prayers in the military. In Feb. 2017, the group urged the leadership at New Hampshire Air National Guard in Portsmouth to disallow chaplains from offering invocations at official ceremonies.

The leadership at the base, however, ignored the complaint, saying no formal complaints were received from airmen regarding the matter.

Greg Heilshorn, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire National Guard, said at the time that the base intends to continue with its practice of conducting chaplain-led prayers at on-base events.

He noted that prayer is a “traditional part” of various events at the base, including promotion, deployment and retirement ceremonies, but he clarified that they are usually nondenominational prayers and no one is required to participate in them.