The United States Military Academy at West Point is known for its academics and prestige. Of late, the institution has come under fire, as atheist activist groups and their compatriots are taking aim at religious practices that are embedded in the academy's culture. In December, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), a church-state separatist group, sent a letter complaining about invocations at official West Point events. Last week, a conservative, legal group responded, defending the ongoing tradition.
The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) followed up on the AU's complaint with a letter that was sent last Wednesday on behalf of the Chaplain Alliance for Religions Liberty. In it, the conservative group railed against AU's church versus state claims, noting that the First Amendment allows public officials to America's "religious heritage."
"Since the Revolution, the U.S. Army has offered soldiers the opportunity to hear invocations. West Point has continued this tradition since its founding in 1802," wrote David Hacker, Alliance Defending Freedom's senior legal counsel. "Anti-religious groups with misguided ideas about the First Amendment should not be allowed to destroy a time-honored and perfectly constitutional American custom."
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The ADF's letter is a direct response to a complaint sent by AU late last year on behalf of non-believing cadets. In it, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the organization's executive director, claimed that West Point violates the Constitution and the rights of cadets, alike, with its invocation practices.
"West Point cadets should be able to train for service in our nation’s military without having religion forced upon them," Lynn noted. "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."
While AU made its opposition to prayer being included at holiday dinners and other official West Point events known, ADF claims that West Point does not require that cadets participate in prayers "or even listen to them." Clearly, the debate here is over whether official events that include prayer are a means of forcing individuals into religious participation.
"The historical practice of offering prayer, especially at military and university functions at West Point, does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," Hacker argued in his letter combating the AU's claims.
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The ADF letter also noted that the Founding Fathers opened meetings with invocations and that, in the conservative legal group's view, it is unfortunate that AU doesn't respect this history. But the church-state separatist group isn't likely to agree with this assessment.
AU expects a response from West Point within 30 days surrounding its charge of "religious coercion" and its request that prayers at official events stop (the initial letter was sent Dec. 19). The most recent response from ADF, though, urges the military academy to disregard the church-state separatist group's invocation request.
West Point recently came under scrutiny on the faith and religion front after Blake Page, an atheist and a former cadet, quit attending the institution. He cited Christian proselytizing and the promotion of prayers and religion as a portion of the basis for his decision.