The New Hampshire Air National Guard has released a statement affirming its practice of offering chaplain-led prayer during military ceremonies after an atheist activist group demanded the government cease invocations.
The debate began after the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist activist group, sent a Feb. 6 letter on behalf of a “concerned guardsman,” complaining over the presence of prayers during ceremonies at Pease Air National Guard Base, NH Journal reported.
The letter charged that scheduled prayers and other “religious exercises” at mandatory meetings for any government employee constitute “illegal government endorsement of religion.” The group called these prayers “unnecessary and divisive.”
“Prayers at military events similarly appear to reasonable observers to endorse religion over nonreligion,” wrote Sam Grover, a lawyer with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “This is exactly the type of endorsement that is prohibited by the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, and also creates a hostile work environment for minority religious and nonreligious guardsmen.”
But the government reportedly wasn’t buying into that narrative, with the New Hampshire National Guard pledging to continue traditional prayers without ceasing.
“We don’t plan on responding to the FFRF. We haven’t had any formal complaints from our airmen internally regarding any concerns with prayers being said at various ceremonies.” New Hampshire National Guard spokesman Greg Heilshorn told the outlet. “We will continue as we’ve done before. It’s our tradition. We believe our chaplains…[are a] vital part of our organization.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, in turn, said the organization is “disappointed” over the decision not to respond. But while secular activists expressed their frustration, the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty and the First Liberty Institute — two organizations devoted to religious freedom — praised the decision.
“We’re very pleased to see the New Hampshire Air National Guard do the right thing and continue their tradition, as the law clearly allows,” Mike Berry, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, said in a statement. “It is perfectly constitutional to offer invocations at military events and service members have every right to exercise their faith under the First Amendment.”
The organizations had joined forces to send the commander of the Pease Air National Guard Base materials highlighting their belief that the base has every right — based on the Constitution, military regulations and federal law — to include prayer at military events.
“The Constitution, federal law, and Department of Defense regulations all support your practice of permitting uniformed chaplains to offer invocations at command functions,” read the letter from First Liberty. “Moreover, those legal authorities actually forbid military commanders from censoring or prohibiting such invocations.”
It is unclear if the Freedom From Religion Foundation will further pursue the issue.
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