I’ve never been in the military. But I’ve known a few good men and women who have served our country. And I know that when they are putting their life on the line, the comforting prayer or counsel from a military chaplain has made a huge difference. That’s why I was disturbed to see last month that Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the United States Military Academy at West Point. AU wrongly claims the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is offended whenever military chaplains solemnize an event with an invocation or benediction, which only occurs at a handful of events each year. Alliance Defending Freedom responded by sending a letter to West Point on behalf of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, confirming that West Point’s practice of solemnizing events with invocations or benedictions is completely constitutional. Here’s why.
The United States Army has offered soldiers the opportunity to hear solemnizing prayers since the Revolutionary Days. General George Washington asked his chaplains to pray for the troops during those critical days at Valley Forge. West Point has offered invocations and benedictions at important events in cadet careers since its founding in 1802. In fact, before the ratification of the First Amendment, Congress authorized the appointment and use of commissioned chaplains, in part to offer solemnizing prayers at crucial moments in a soldier’s life and our Nation’s history. If this tradition was established before ratification of the Establishment Clause, then the Founding Fathers clearly didn’t think it was a problem.
The purpose of West Point’s prayers is to allow military chaplains to partner with the academy’s leadership in the development of future leaders of character and offer words of encouragement in support of the particular event’s intent. The invocations and benedictions are opportunities to dignify milestone events in a cadet’s career, not moments to advance one religion over another. Moreover, cadets are not compelled to participate in the prayers, or even listen to them. But the prayers offer them time to reflect on the significance of their education and training.
One of West Point’s tasks is to help cadets learn how to celebrate the religious diversity in the Army. This is done not by stripping “the public square of every last shred of public piety,” as a federal court of appeals said. Learning to celebrate the religious diversity in the Army is accomplished by providing a positive view of America’s rich religious diversity. West Point’s acknowledgement of religious and non-religious practices of various kinds aligns with the non-establishment philosophy embodied in the First Amendment.
We hope West Point doesn’t capitulate to AU’s demands, but continues this vital tradition for future soldiers.