The Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington D.C.-based group that has opposed religion in public schools, school voucher and "faith-based" initiatives in the federal government and in the states, is now calling for an end to Christian prayers at the tradition-rich U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
According to Barry Lynn, the group's executive director, the cadets "should be able to train for service in our nation's military without having religion forced upon them" and that "academy officials must respect the religious liberty rights of all cadets who should be free to make their own decisions about prayer without government coercion."
Americans United gave the academy 30 days to respond to its letter calling for an end to all prayers at official events.
The statement mentions that some cadets have complained about prayers being included at a number of events, including Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.
On receiving the letter, a spokesman for the academy noted that all prayers at West Point are voluntary. Ron Crews of Chaplain Alliance, explained that as America becomes increasingly diverse, so too does the student body at West Point, and therefore we need to respect our plurality instead of trying to silence those who do have faith.
While attacks on religion in the military, from Nativity scenes on military chapels to prayers at events are a sign of our times, Crews notes that the West Point challenge is yet another example of misusing the First Amendment as well as the history of the nation's military. He points out that George Washington was famous for his prayers for his soldiers, and that he was the one who asked Congress to authorize chaplains to be in every brigade.
Another critic of the latest challenge from Americans United is retired Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin who said the aim has nothing to do with wanting to support the First Amendment, as the group understands it, but to destroy Christianity in America.
Boykin says that because prayer at West Point is a tradition that derives from Christianity, groups like Americans United want to destroy that tradition because they are anti-Christian. He feels their objective is to have any remnant of Christian influence erased from society.
We find it interesting how Americans United picks and chooses its fights. Nothing was heard from the group last week when ministers of all faiths gathered at an interfaith service for the 27 people killed by a gunman in Newtown, Conn. We heard not a word from Barry Lynn about President Obama's message to people in Newtown and the nation who were numbed by the tragedy.
"Let the little children come to me," Jesus said, "and do not hinder them - for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven," President Obama stated.
After reciting the names of the 20 young students who were killed, Obama ended by saying: "God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory. May God bless and keep those we've lost in His heavenly place. May He grace those we still have with His holy comfort. And may He bless and watch over this community, and the United States of America."
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having official prayers at official events.
With our nation facing so many challenges on the national and global stage, it would be wise for groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State to mull over Obama's words as we head into a new year.
By Jim Zbick