West Point Military Academy at Center of Prayer Debate

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By Jeff Schapiro, Christian Post Reporter
January 12, 2013|10:34 am

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys sent a letter to the United States Military Academy this week explaining why, contrary to the complaints of a group that advocates for church-state separation, they believe invocations should continue to be said at certain West Point events.

"The First Amendment allows public officials to acknowledge our nation's religious heritage," said David Hacker, ADF senior legal counsel, in a statement. "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. Anti-religious groups with misguided ideas about the First Amendment should not be allowed to destroy a time-honored and perfectly constitutional American custom."

ADF's letter was written on the behalf of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, and was signed by Hacker and attorney James P. Trainor, who graduated from West Point in 1981. It was written in response to a letter of complaint, which was submitted to officials at the U.S. Army academy by Americans United for Separation of Church and State last month.

The letter, signed by AUSCS Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Staff Attorney Ian Smith, argues that prayers said at the military academy during events including Thanksgiving Dinner, Christmas Dinner, various award ceremonies and graduation are unconstitutional because they are essentially government-sponsored prayers.

While the participation of West Point cadets in such events is supposedly optional, AUSCS says that isn't always the case.

"Cadets are uniformly told that attendance at these events is required," writes Khan. "They are further instructed that the only way that they may be excused from the event is to write a formal letter requesting an exemption from the activity, and to present that letter to the superior officers within the cadet's chain of command. And even if a cadet were to write such a letter, objection to the prayer would not provide a valid ground for recusal from attendance."

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The AUSCS letter also refers to Blake Page, a former West Point cadet, who reportedly requested to be excused from an award dinner once because of the religious nature of the event's invocation and benediction, but his request was denied.

Despite the accusations, ADF says West Point isn't coercing cadets to participate in religious practices through invocations and, as a result, claims the academy is on firm constitutional ground.

"The purpose of the prayers is to allow military chaplains to partner with West Point's leadership in the development of future leaders of character and offer words of encouragement in support of the particular event's intent," ADF's letter states. "The invocations and benedictions are not evangelical tools, and to some may not even be viewed as overly religious, but they are opportunities to dignify milestone events in a cadet's career."

A public affairs representative for the U.S. Military Academy was unable to offer an official comment to The Christian Post before publication time.

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