Respect Existence or Expect Resistance

Cadets line up before a graduation and commissioning ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., on Saturday,
Cadets line up before a graduation and commissioning ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., on Saturday, May 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

This afternoon I received a not-so-startling report from multiple fourth class (freshman) cadets at West Point who are current clients of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). These cadets solicited my services as the Director of MRFF Affairs at West Point to find some way to ensure that they are no longer explicitly required to celebrate the religious holiday of their superiors' choosing. I say not-so-startling because it is well understood that the command at West Point does not just recommend, encourage or support the exaltation of Christianity around this time of year, but requires it by force of policy under threat of reprimand for any who dissent. Some may attempt to mince words or parry my indictment with claims that Christianity is a philosophy and Christmas is a cultural tradition. Although those arguments lack intellectual integrity on several fronts, in this particular instance there is no way to obfuscate the truth of the matter, as the cadets in question were not simply made to dress Christmas trees or give presents, but were given direct orders to serenade their superiors with such classic songs as "O Holy Night" and "Joy to the World." If there is a secular message in those songs it can only be heard in the absence of vocal accompaniment.

Although many have argued that "isolated incidents" such as the one described above are anomalous and not indicative of the command climate at large or of any systematic problem, I would like to point to the fact that each year in December, the Corps of Cadets is assembled in full dress uniform to celebrate Christmas Dinner. Christmas Dinner begins and ends with the standard mandatory prayer seen at every formal event, and following the meal they are required to sing, en masse, "The 12 Days of Christmas." No, it is not a voluntary affair. All cadets at West Point, every year, must celebrate Christmas.

By now many readers may be wondering why I am being so uppity with my invocation of the First Amendment's No Establishment Clause and my impassioned desire to see adherence to our Constitution in action. I care about this bedrock principle of American democracy because many others care about it; because we are all affected by the intrusion of religious authority into the government. There is no place for establishing the supremacy of one religion over all others in our country. Many American service members have had their fill of being told that the religious preference of the majority is superior to their personally held philosophical beliefs. Of course, no officer in authority would ever cite majority rule or long standing tradition as cause to defy the Constitution... except they have:

I have noted that the 3rd Regimental Shield and its accompanying narrative can be offensive to some cadets with secular beliefs, but not offensive for a majority of cadets at the United States Military Academy (USMA).

The above quotation is from the response to a recent Equal Opportunity investigation issued by Brigadier General Theodore Martin, the Commandant of Cadets. I would like to draw attention to the fact that it is most certainly more than "cadets with secular beliefs" that take issue with being taught to be leaders of our country's armed forces under the brand of the Christian Crusades: Of our 161 current MRFF clients at West Point, more than 80 percent are practicing Christians.

Perhaps more intriguing, those fourth class cadets who took such issue with being mandated to celebrate Christmas this year as to seek out help from the MRFF were each practicing Christians themselves. Perhaps this message will be heard by the chain of command at West Point before legal action ensues, perhaps not, but a lawful resolution is certainly fast approaching.

An extremely close ally of the MRFF, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), issued a press release earlier today to inform the population of their intent to see such a resolution delivered. AU has given West Point's leadership 30 days to respond to the charges of violating the Constitution through the enforcement of unlawful mandatory prayer. However, this is not the first time that the issue has been brought to the attention of the leaders of our country's military. So, more than 50 years after it was quite clearly established that no state organization may mandate prayer in this country, what does our military have to say about its continuation of the practice?

"Many events at USMA begin with a prayer. The prayers are intentionally not compulsory or exclusionary and are a long standing tradition..."

-Brigadier General Theodore Martin, Commandant of Cadets

It troubles me a great deal to know that what you've read above is the honest response issued by a man who once looked me in the eye and acknowledged that requiring attendance to prayers was an issue that would one day go the way of Don't Ask Don't Tell. There is no courage in acknowledging a problem, then postponing its remediation. There is no way to avoid the clear truth that the act of prayer itself is an explicit command endorsement of a set of theological beliefs above all others. The Army prays on its feet, heads bowed, to Almighty God, the master and creator of all. The Army does not kneel and face Mecca and neither does it sit and hum a mantra. It does not pray for polytheists, pagans or those who prefer to acknowledge a female deity and it does not reflect on the value of reason based ethics. These prayers, intentionally or not, are exclusionary, and participation is without any doubt absolutely compulsory. How could an officer argue that such is not the case?

Tradition. Tradition above freedom. Tradition above liberty. After all, wasn't the United States founded on the principles of justice and liberty solely for the majority? I would revel in the ignorance of any man or woman with the confidence to make that ignorant statement in their own words. Although unable to say it with words, the leaders of our nation are saying it with their actions and with their votes. Twenty-one percent of our military and 32 percent of our civilian population are currently non-religious. It's now time that our leaders acknowledge the fact that our spiritual choices are not a matter to be toyed with by the government in any way. The new mantra of the MRFF, courtesy of founder and president Mikey Weinstein, should ring loud and clear: "Respect existence or expect resistance." Do you hear us now?