07/03/2008 - Over the past few years, there have been several controversies over religion's role in the military. Most recently, students and staff at the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point have complained of pressure from their supervisors to engage in religious activities. Three years earlier, there were similar allegations at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Other controversies have arisen over whether military chaplains may offer faith-specific prayers at official military events. With cadets, military officers and chaplains asserting competing constitutional rights, these disputes have raised multifaceted and complicated questions. To clarify these issues, the Pew Forum turns to church-state scholar Robert W. Tuttle.
Robert W. Tuttle, David R. and Sherry Kirschner Berz Research Professor of Law and Religion, George Washington University Law School
Jesse Merriam, Research Associate, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Question & Answer:
Recently there have been several disputes over religion’s role in the military. Can you give us some background on these controversies?
There is a very long relationship between religion and the military in the United States, going back to the early days of the Army, which had chaplains funded by the Continental Congress. But over the last 30 years, the military, like many other parts of our society, has become much more religiously diverse. This diversity has produced some of the recent controversies.
For example, a few years ago there were complaints that some Air Force Academy faculty members and more-senior cadets were pressuring cadets to participate in religious activities. Those who investigated the complaints expressed concerns about a culture of proselytizing at the academy. There also have been a number of stories of service men and women in various branches of the military being pressured to participate in prayers.
When thinking about these controversies, it’s important to distinguish between mandatory and voluntary religious activities. All service academies used to require everyone to attend religious services. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found this requirement unconstitutional in Anderson v. Laird (1972), the Naval Academy still holds pre-meal prayers, and attendance at these meals is required. This has recently stirred up some controversy, leading some students at the Naval Academy to seek legal help from the American Civil Liberties Union. A similar practice of mealtime prayer at the Virginia Military Institute was held unconstitutional by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Mellen v. Bunting (2003).
Most of the recent controversies over this issue, however, have involved social pressure rather than official requirements. These disputes are about whether a person in authority has been too aggressive in urging others within the military to participate in some religious activity. In the past, this might not have caused a dispute, but now there are serious controversies over this issue because people are much more willing to object to the pressure.
Read the complete transcript Accommodating Faith in the Military on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.