Greetings. I am a currently deployed member of an army national guard unit, and have been an atheist for a number of years. While my atheism is incredibly important to me and many fellow soldiers are aware of my stance, I don't parade it around because I am in a fairly visible position and don't want to alienate my soldiers. I am currently being put in a difficult position, though.
Our battalion is regularly holding mandatory formations or ceremonies where the chaplain offers clearly sectarian christian prayers. My unit in particular seems to have a fairly high number of atheists who are becoming increasingly angered by having to "participate" in these prayers, and they have turned to me for help because they know that I share their lack of belief.
I know that the chaplain's role in the military is incredibly established and there are almost always prayers at military ceremonies, but how is this constitutional? Congress has ruled that there can be no prayers offered in public schools because it violates the Establishment Clause, so how are military prayers any different? And how should I begin to approach this without inciting hatred against myself that could potentially ruin my career?
Why can't the chaplans just add something like "now we will pray or give thought".
The same way that political assemblies or some schools get around the Establishment Clause: "non-secterian prayers" or invocations". Which of course is nonsense, as it's still basically a Christian prayer. It's just a code word. Just not one unique to one sect. Some places occasionally have non-Christians do the invocation, but that's pretty rare. You could probably complain about the sectarian prayers and say it discriminates against other types of Christians. But that doesn't solve the real problem.
Just stand there and refuse to bow your head. If others join in that wouldn't single you out either. Maybe someone notices how many don't do it...
I've heard of that sort of thing, where theists will argue that our country offers freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion. However, the Establishment Clause has been clearly defined by the courts to state that the government cannot make an endorsement of one religion over another, but also cannot endorse religion over no religion. It seems to me that having a prayer at all, even if it isn't sectarian, endorses the beliefs of the believers over the non-belief of us atheists.
Plus, the only people that see that my head isn't bowed are the other atheists. All the Christians have their heads bowed and their eyes closed.
One of my soldiers has taken an interesting approach: When the chaplain says "I invite you to pray in your faith tradition as I pray in mine," he begins to seizure violently in formation, claiming that they couldn't possibly know that isn't his faith tradition. It's pretty funny, I must admit.
I assume that when these prayers happen are you in formation already and unable to excuse your self. If that is the case you might consider approaching the Chaplin in private and ask him to hold the prayer as a separate gathering before you all fall in to formation perhaps have those who want to pray assemble with him before the exercises start you may also want to consult the national Atheist groups and the ACLU for advice before you proceed.
I think the best way to determine what should happen is for you to go directly to the chaplain and explain the situation. Be tactful, be respectful, and be honest. Explain that you're not the only one, you speak on behalf of many, and you want to get his advice on how to handle this. Most military chaplains are pretty level-headed, as they realize they are tasked with serving a large and varied constituency. So, instead of confronting him, approach him as, "I don't know what to do about this, and I need your help." This shows respect and puts him on "your side" as you have asked him to help you.
Now, if he's one of the few who is doggedly determined to force everyone to listen to his xian prayer then I would probably talk to my CO or "First Shirt". (For the non-military, an explanation: the "First Shirt" is a high ranking Master Sargent who is tasked with representing the enlisted for the unit. They are designated with a small diamond in their chevrons/stripes).
Good luck, and let us know how it goes.
Incidentally, I'm a vet - USAF 1983-87, left as an E-4 Sargent. I worked on the flight line on F-4E Phantom II's, as an avionics comm/nav weenie - and as a crew chief of a bird.
Have you contacted the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or the ACLU? They may act on your behalf and maintain your anonymity. You should contact them and explain the whole situation.
I am also a vet. I do not approve of the chaplain position. It's time to get rid of chaplains and let them be like any other private citizen with respect to the military and government funding - our tax money should not be supporting chaplains and you should not have to listen to their superstitious babbling.
Casey, be careful here. A number of suits have been filed and won or settled favorably with regards to the "spiritual guidance" of soldiers. Operate first inside your chain of command, let them know that you and those you represent respect the beliefs and traditions of the armed forces, but, like many others, you don't share some of those beliefs. Remain respectful, and move it up the chain. Document your efforts. Make it known that you understand the purpose of these meetings and the effect of prayer on morale, and suggest alternatives. IE a moment of quiet reflection without sectarian guidance, a separate secular formation with the same purpose for those of you who believe differently etc.. Keep a log, contact JAG for any legal advice, and prepare to approach the ACLU or FFRF to file suit if things turn nasty.
As for the establishment clause.. For some reason the military seems to think that their people don't have access to constitutional protections, especially this one. This is not the case, I've heard active duty say that they gave those rights up when they enlisted or were commissioned. They didn't, the Supreme Court ruled that military service contracts are the same under contract law as any other contract, and contracts cannot deny constitutional rights. The armed forces have a long tradition of serving god and country, and there are a great many commanders that believe that Christian services are imperative to discipline and morale.
Again, if you decide to pursue this, be respectful, obedient, and dogged. Come to them with solutions, know your rights, and document everything. Be prepared to suffer for challenging the status quo, be prepared to file suit.
I am not active duty, my dad served for 22 years, my brother is serving now. I grew up in that culture and exist alongside of it, but I'm not a part of it. Your post was addressed to vets, I didn't want to misrepresent myself.
Thank you for your response, Kevin. I welcome any and all comments and advice, I just assumed (incorrectly, I suppose), that those without military experience wouldn't understand the culture and the intense faith that many soldiers have. I guess I was also hoping that someone else had shared a similar experience. We can be the only people in the army that are ticked off about this sort of thing. But thanks again for the great advice.
As others have said, be very careful about this. Of course you have every right to voice your concerns, but evangelical Christianity is deeply entrenched in military culture. Things can get ugly really fast for an atheist in the military.
Spent 3 years in the Army, 1964-67. My buddies all knew I was atheist. In formations, etc., I stood or sat straight and kept my eyes open. Maybe a knowing smirk. I can listen to lots of horseshit without being offended or influenced by it.
I might, if I were you, mention my concern to the chaplain, although christ-tards are notoriously intolerant, cruel, and ultimately murderous, so it might not benefit your career.