Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus participated in a hearing last week on religious accommodations in the military. The hearing was chaired by Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), who was joined by Reps. Fleming (LA-04), Forbes (VA-04), Hartzler (MO-04), Huelskamp (KS-01), Jones (NC-03), and Lamborn (CO-05).
The panel of witnesses included Michael Berry, Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs at the Liberty Institute, Dr. Ron Crews, Executive Director of Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, and Travis Weber, Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council. The full video of the hearing can be seen here.
In his opening remarks, Chairman Wilson stated, “One of the strengths of our military is its diversity of belief and mutual respect. As such, it has been important for Congress to ensure that the appropriate statutory and regulatory guidance is in place, and that DoD and the military services are implementing such guidance in order for the services to meet the important spiritual and religious needs of the troops.”
Concerns of a chilling effect on personal expressions of faith have persisted because of repeated incidents where a servicemember has been questioned or penalized for a religious statement. These concerns were aggravated when the Air Force Academy oversaw the removal of a Bible verse from a cadet’s dorm room whiteboard after someone complained, stating that the verse was incompatible with leadership principles and with the religious expression policy in Air Force Instruction 1-1. That policy has since been revised to significantly improve protections for free exercise in the Air Force.
Rep. Lamborn, whose district encompasses the Air Force Academy and who spearheaded an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act this year requiring the Air Force to revise AFI 1-1, expressed a concern that, “if taken to an extreme, someone who is a leader and has a religious component to his or her life . . . and to not be able to ever discuss that would be dishonest with other people.”
Several Members asked witnesses to tease out the difference between being offended by someone else’s beliefs and being coerced to support a specific religious perspective. In response to a question from Prayer Caucus Co-Chairman Rep. Forbes, Mr. Weber highlighted the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the Court made clear in its Establishment Clause analysis of legislative prayer that “offense does not equate to coercion.” Mr. Weber also pointed out that “if you look at the dissent . . . the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that religion had a role in public life.”
“You’re basically looking at a situation here where these individuals are stating what they believe, and based on that we’re calling that coercion, and then we’re starting to restrict that kind of freedom of expression and belief,” stated Rep. Forbes. “Nobody is defending an individual trying to proselytize or coerce. We’re simply trying to say we need a protection—just because you wear a uniform doesn’t mean that you no longer have the right to express your freedom of your faith.”
Dr. Fleming agreed, stating, “There is clearly a double standard being applied. . . . I have yet to hear one Member of Congress say that we should have a law that allows or promotes in any way proselytizing. No one has an interest in that, and that becomes simply a straw man argument.”
Rep. Hartzler asked Dr. Crews whether the guidance issued by the Department of Defense, implementing the conscience protections passed by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act, has made a positive difference in how military chaplains are supervised. According to Dr. Crews, though DoD has implemented guidance on these protections, chaplains and their endorsers have yet to see how it will be communicated and taught within the branches.
Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus have been instrumental in exercising oversight to protect religious freedom for members of the military, and they are committed to working with military leaders to positively reinforce an environment that cultivates religion in the military, rather than attacking it.
The Air Force has released a revised version of the religious expression language in Air Force Instruction 1-1. The press release is here and the revised instruction is here. These changes are the result of a Religious Freedom Focus Day convened by Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh.
Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus have actively advocated for this change in Air Force regulations. By placing a disproportionate emphasis on religious neutrality, the old language was inconsistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and with the conscience protections for servicemembers and chaplains that were passed by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act.
The new language is significantly improved, and now references well-established standards for religious freedom found in the First Amendment and in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In response to the new language, Reps. Lamborn and Forbes issued the following statement:
"The Air Force’s new policy more clearly reflects the priority of religious freedom in our Constitution and in the conscience protections for servicemembers and chaplains that Congress passed in the National Defense Authorization Act. Whereas the old language was misleading and confusing for Commanders to apply, these revisions point to well-established standards for protecting religious expression. We are grateful to General Welsh and Chaplain Stendahl for their leadership in revising this policy, and hope that this new language will better aid commanders in maintaining the high standard that our Nation has always had for protecting freedom of religion for our men and women in uniform.”
Members of the Prayer Caucus were instrumental in passing conscience protections in the NDAA, and they will continue to engage with military leadership as this new policy is implemented to ensure that no servicemember is forced to forfeit the very fundamental freedoms that he or she sacrifices so much to defend.
Attorneys defending the Mt. Soledad Memorial Cross filed an opening brief on October 15, 2014 on behalf of the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association. Though a federal district court ruled in 2008 that the cross was constitutional, the 9th Circuit overturned that decision and the cross was ordered to be removed.
The decision ordering the removal of the memorial is deeply flawed and runs counter to Supreme Court precedent. As the Supreme Court has noted, “a Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people.” U.S. v. Stevens, 559 U.S. 460 (2010).
The federal government has also defended the cross, stating in an April, 2014, brief that “the district court correctly concluded that the Memorial does not violated the Establishment Clause. The current cross has stood on Mt. Soledad since 1954, but a Latin cross has been present atop Mt. Soledad since 1913.
Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus have consistently defended the memorial, most recently filing an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court, urging the justices to review the case. In June, 2014, however, the Court refused to step in until the 9th Circuit had reviewed the appeal. Thanks to an injunction, the cross will remain in place while the litigation is ongoing.
Congressman J. Randy Forbes (VA-04), led 25 Members of Congress in a bipartisan letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, urging that donated religious materials remain in the guest rooms at Navy Lodge facilities. Last week, it came to light at the Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM) had issued a memo for the removal of Bibles currently in Navy Lodge guest rooms after NEXCOM received a complaint. After significant pushback, however, the Navy announced that the decision was being reconsidered.
The letter acknowledges the Navy’s announcement that the Bibles will be replaced, pending review, and requests confirmation that the Bibles have in fact been replaced. The Members note, “The mere presence of a Bible or other religious text—texts which are typically placed out of sight in a nightstand drawer—coerces no one. The Establishment Clause does not require that you remove the Bibles from the guest rooms.”
“I am concerned that military officials have repeatedly capitulated to demands by organizations that seek to scrub the military of all references of faith,” stated Congressman Forbes. “I am glad that the Navy has indicated the Bibles will be returned. The Constitution prohibits the government from coercing its citizens in their religious beliefs; it does not require that all vestiges of faith be scrubbed from view.”
Congressman Forbes is the Founder and Co-Chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, a bipartisan group of over 100 Members of Congress committed to defending America’s heritage of religious freedom. More information on his work protecting the religious liberties of our servicemembers is available, here.
The following piece by Congressman Collins and Congressman Forbes was published in the Washington Times.
Answering a Higher Calling to Serve
The following piece by Congressman Forbes was featured in the National Review on May 30, 2014.
The “9/11 Cross” should remain, as should the other crosses that memorialize our war dead.
By J. Randy Forbes
It stood for weeks, a symbol to many of the loss and pain a city had endured, and of hope that would carry them through. The Ground Zero cross is now a part of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which officially opened to the public on May 21, but its inclusion in the museum as a historical artifact that had great significance for the first responders, rescue workers, and volunteers from that great tragedy has not gone unchallenged.
The Ground Zero cross was moved from the rubble and displayed near Ground Zero until July 23, 2011, when it was transferred to the September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. A group swiftly filed a lawsuit, arguing that the cross does not belong in a public museum and demanding that it be removed.
A federal district court dismissed the case, stating that “no reasonable observer would view the artifact as endorsing Christianity.” The case was appealed and heard by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2014, and a final decision is pending.
The Ground Zero cross is just one example of the many legal challenges that have threatened memorials around the country. Another memorial — the Mount Soledad Cross in California — has been the center of a legal battle for more than 20 years. The cross was dedicated in 1953 to honor those who gave their lives in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. Many, including members of Congress, have risen to defend the cross, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the cross was unconstitutional. The fate of the cross has been appealed to the Supreme Court.
One of the most recent challenges has arisen in Maryland, where a roadside cross known as the Memorial Peace Cross, built in 1925, honors the men from Prince George’s County who gave their lives to defend freedom in World War I. The plaintiffs who are challenging the cross state in their complaint that the cross upsets them and that they do not wish to see it in the future.
What is it that makes memorial crosses — erected to honor the memories of soldiers, victims, and many others — so controversial? They are controversial because they offend a few, despite the fact that they have great meaning to many who know they are built to give our thanks to all who served. Though many of these memorials have stood for decades, only recently have they become the subject of constitutional controversy.
In upholding the constitutionality of one such memorial in 2010, in Salazar v. Buono, Justice Kennedy, writing for the Supreme Court, noted:
[A] Latin cross . . . is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people. Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.
As the Supreme Court affirmed this May, the Establishment Clause protects Americans from government-coerced religion. The Constitution has never promised the right not to be offended by another — such a ridiculous standard would turn the protections of the First Amendment on their head. If offense is truly our litmus test, then we must not only forgo the freedom of religious expression but also supporting our favorite sports teams, robustly debating public policy, and discussing various theories of the origin of the universe.
We live in a pluralistic society that encompasses a great diversity of beliefs. The protection of that diversity depends on our ability to maintain a cultural and legal structure that protects and encourages the expression of many different beliefs. These memorial crosses honor the fallen — not a few or most, but all — and they must be protected.
— J. Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s fourth congressional district in the House of Representatives.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the constitutionality of the national motto, “In God We Trust,” on U.S. currency, stating that the motto’s inclusion in the design of U.S. currency is “a reference to out religious heritage.” The decision affirmed a federal district court’s dismissal of the case in September, 2013.
The Second Circuit noted several times that the “[Supreme] Court’s Justices have distinguished our currency from improper governmental endorsements of religion,” repeatedly indicating that the statutes requiring that the motto be included on U.S. Currency “have a secular purpose and neither advance not inhibit religion.” As such, the Second Circuit upheld the dismissal of the challenge.
Forty-one Members of the House of Representatives signed an amicus curiae brief to the federal district court, supporting the motto and articulating how “In God We Trust” is a reflection of the historical fact that America was founded on a belief in God. “The Establishment Clause was never intended as a guarantee that a person will not be exposed to religion or religious symbols on public property, and the Supreme Court has rejected previous attempts to eradicate all symbols of this country’s religious heritage from the public’s view.”
This is the fifth time the constitutionality of the national motto has been challenged, and the fifth time such a challenge has failed. Similar decisions have been issued by the Fifth, Ninth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits.
In November 1, 2011, the House of Representatives passed H.Con.Res.13, a resolution reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the national motto and encouraging its display in public buildings and government institutions. The resolution passed by a vote of 396 to 9. Members of the Prayer Caucus will continue to ensure that evidence of our nation’s spiritual heritage is preserved in the public square.
On May 9, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
There have been at least three failed attempts to challenge ‘under God’ in the Pledge. Unable to sustain a claim under the federal constitution, anonymous atheist parents of three Massachusetts schoolchildren challenged the Pledge under the Equal Rights Amendment of the Massachusetts constitution.
Massachusetts law requires that the Pledge be recited in public schools every day, however no child is required to recite it. A student may abstain from the recitation and without providing a reason. The parents argued that the phrase demonstrates favoritism for religion and marginalizes those who would disagree, despite that fact that no child is required to recite the Pledge or to give a reason for refusal to do so.
The court upheld the constitutionality of the Pledge without dissent, concluding that “the recitation of the pledge, which is entirely voluntary, violates neither the [state] Constitution nor the [state] statute.” The court reiterated that it is “a fundamentally patriotic exercise, not a religious one. . . . The fact that a school or other public entity operates a voluntary program or offers an activity that offends the religious beliefs of one or more individuals, and leaves them feeling ‘stigmatized’ or ‘excluded’ as a result, does not mean that the program or activity necessarily violates equal protection principles.”
Co-Chairman of the Prayer Caucus, Congressman Mike McIntyre, and Congressman Steven Palazzo led 38 Members of Congress in an amicus curiae brief defending the phrase in the Pledge. In response to the decision, Congressman McIntyre stated, “With this decision, we have once again affirmed the strong underpinnings of faith in our nation's heritage! This is a great victory for religious liberty for people of all faiths. I am appreciative of all the Members of Congress who joined our efforts to defend the national Pledge of Allegiance and its vital role as a national symbol of unity. We are indeed one nation, under God!”
The Members’ brief states, “Congress has seen fit to define national symbols that reflect our nation’s heritage and affirm constitutional principles. The national Pledge of Allegiance is one of America’s most treasured national symbols, and it serves an invaluable unifying purpose.”
As a national symbol, the Pledge serves to unify Americans in remembrance of the fragile and precious freedoms we have in this country. First written in 1892, it has been a part of American history for over a century. Congress officially adopted the Pledge in 1942, and in 1954 Congress amended it to include the phrase ‘under God.’
Congress reaffirmed its commitment to the Pledge in 2002, specifically noting the historical importance of faith in American history, from Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence to President Lincoln’s words in the Gettysburg Address. Members of the Caucus remain committed to protecting the rich spiritual heritage of American history.
Reps. Forbes and McIntyre also introduced H.Res. 547, a resolution affirming the National Day of Prayer and the role that prayer has played in our Nation’s history. The resolution “encourages all the people of the United States to come together to pray and reaffirm the importance prayer has played in the Nation’s heritage,” noting several calls to prayer from Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower , John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.
Presidential recognition of the vital role of prayer in the continuance of our freedoms has a strong pedigree. As our nation was on the verge of splitting in half in 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of prayer, that “the united cry of the nation will be heard on high and answered with blessings no less than the pardon of our national sins and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace.” On the eve of D-Day in 1944 as General Eisenhower and his troops carried out the perilous invasion of Normandy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation in prayer. Since the inauguration of President Washington in 1789, there have been well over two hundred fifty Presidential calls to prayer.
The first National Day of Prayer as we now know it was passed by Congress on April 17, 1952, and called for the President to “set aside and proclaim a suitable day each year . . . on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.” On May 9, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the current version of the law, calling on the President to issue a proclamation each year designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer.
Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus remain committed to honoring the National Day of Prayer, and the role that faith and prayer have played in strengthening our Nation.
The following piece by Congressman Forbes and Congressman McIntyre was featured in the National Review on April 30, 2014 National Review.
United through Prayer
By J. Randy Forbes (VA-04) & Mike McIntyre (NC-07)
It is easy to tire of the divisive nature of politics. The ability of civil disagreements to drive a wedge between people of good will is nothing new; it is an age-old challenge, and one that our nation’s founders struggled with as well. The theme for this year’s National Day of Prayer, which we will celebrate on Thursday, May 1, is “One Voice, United in Prayer.” As we honor the National Day of Prayer, it is important to remember that throughout our nation’s history, in times of sorrow and of joy, prayer has united and strengthened America as a people.
After the American Revolution, our nation’s leaders were deeply divided over the way in which this new experiment in democracy should be governed. A first attempt at forming a civil structure under the Articles of Confederation was failing and a convention was called to address the problem.
Though they all had fought for the shared ideal of freedom in the Revolution, the delegates at the Constitutional Convention agreed very little about what structure of government would best preserve their hard-won freedom. Disagreements and bickering threatened to undermine the new nation almost as soon as it had begun. Amidst the controversy, Benjamin Franklin urged that the delegates appoint religious leaders to open each session with prayer. Franklin noted in his appeal that, during the war with Britain, they had prayed daily for protection, and yet in a time of peace they had forgotten the need to seek such protection and wisdom.
Prayer is not a tonic that will make all leaders see eye to eye, but it is an act of faith that has unified us as a nation since our inception. Corporate prayer can unify us despite our disagreements by reminding us that, while we may disagree about what paths or policies will best continue to support and secure our freedoms, we must recognize where we have shared motivations to preserve that freedom. Despite our disagreements, we can be one voice, united in prayer as we strive to overcome the challenges that lie before us.
Over the course of American history, presidential calls to prayer have alone numbered over 130 proclamations. The first presidential call to prayer was issued by George Washington on October 3, 1789. He wrote, “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.”
In 1952, under President Harry Truman, Congress made an annual National Day of Prayer a permanent fixture. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed an amendment to the law, designating the first Thursday in May of each year as the official National Day of Prayer. This year marks the 63rd annual observance of the National Day of Prayer. Politics continues to be divisive — there is nothing new under the sun — but prayer has helped in the past to overcome these obstacles, and prayer will help us to overcome again.
We need to recognize the uniting power of prayer. That is why, as co-chairmen of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, we introduced a bipartisan resolution, H.Res. 547, supporting the National Day of Prayer and urging all Americans to come together to pray and to reaffirm the importance prayer has had in our nation’s history. By recalling historic national calls to prayer from Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Clinton, and George W. Bush, this resolution serves as a reminder of the many ways that prayer has united and strengthened the American people.
We will continue to disagree over courses of action, but we can bridge those disagreements and overcome these certain challenges by uniting in prayer.
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Congressman J. Randy Forbes, Founder
Senator James Lankford, Co-Chairman
For a complete list of Members of the Congressional
Prayer Caucus, click here.
Contact the Congressional Prayer Caucus Amy Vitale, Amy.Vitale@mail.house.gov