ACLU NEWS RELEASE
BALTIMORE – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Maryland are urging the U.S. Naval Academy to stop forcing midshipmen to participate in the Academy’s compulsory “noon meal prayers.”
In a letter sent May 2 to Vice Admiral Jeffrey L. Fowler on behalf of a group of midshipmen who object to the prayers, Deborah A. Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland, asked that the Academy discontinue its requirement that all midshipmen stand in attendance at the daily “noon meal prayer,” a practice that violates their religious freedom and rights of conscience.
In the letter, Jeon makes clear that the ACLU opposes compulsory religious services mandated by the government, not voluntary religious exercises by Academy midshipmen.
“Members of the military have a right to pray or not pray as they personally see fit, and that right is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is one of the fundamental rights they put their lives on the line to defend in service to their country,” said Jeon. “But the government should not be in the business of compelling religious observance, particularly in military academies, where students can feel coerced by senior students and officials and risk the loss of leadership opportunities for following their conscience.”
In its letter, the ACLU documents how first-year midshipmen find themselves in a difficult position if their conscience dictates that they do not join in prayer, because they are expected to adhere as strictly as possible to official practices and not “stand apart” as nonconformists.
“Members of the armed services should never be coerced to engage in religious exercises in violation of their conscience,” said Col. Mike Pheneger, U.S. Army (ret.), a member of the ACLU’s Board of Directors. “The Academy should ensure that midshipmen understand the requirements, expectations and core values of officers, but it should not prescribe or even recommend that religion is the medium for achieving them.”
For First Classmen, being forced to participate in compulsory prayers can be particularly problematic. One midshipman told the ACLU that a squad leader who objects to the prayers is put in an unacceptable position of either violating his or her conscience or standing apart and setting a discordant example for subordinates.
“The military should be protecting rights of conscience, and not abusing those rights,” Pheneger said.
In response to complaints filed by several midshipmen, the Naval Academy earlier this year issued a document entitled, “FAQs about the USNA Noon Meal Prayer” that ignores the constitutional standards identified in a 2003 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which struck down as unconstitutional “supper prayers” at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). The Navy’s FAQs do not attempt to explain any legally significant difference between the Naval Academy’s noon meal prayer and VMI’s supper prayer. As the court’s decision made clear, “While the First Amendment does not in any way prohibit [cadets or midshipmen] from praying before, during, or after [meals], the Establishment Clause prohibits [military academies] from sponsoring such a religious activity.”
“The ACLU respects the important place religious faith holds among many in the military, and we have defended the fundamental right of religious communities, families, and individuals – including those in the armed services – to practice their faith freely and openly and without compulsion,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
A copy of the ACLU’s letter to the Naval Academy can be found online at: www.aclu.org/religion/gen/35756res20080502.html