The controversy led the Air Force to adopt guidelines that discourage public prayers at official events or meetings. And while those rules do not apply to other branches of the service, critics say the new complaints raise questions about the military’s commitment to policies against imposing religion on its members.
Religion in the military has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, especially because the close confines of military life often put two larger societal trends — the rise of evangelicals and the rise of people of no organized faith — onto a collision course.
At the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., nine midshipmen recently asked the American Civil Liberties Union to petition the school to abolish daily prayer at weekday lunch, where attendance is mandatory. The midshipmen and the A.C.L.U. assert that the practice is unconstitutional, based in large part on a 2004 appellate court ruling against a similar prayer at the Virginia Military Institute. The civil liberties group has threatened legal action if the policy is not changed.
But the academy is not persuaded.
“The academy does not intend to change its practice of offering midshipmen an opportunity for prayer or devotional thought during noon meal announcements,” Cmdr. Ed Austin, an academy spokesman, said in an e-mail message.
In interviews at West Point, seven cadets, two officers and a former chaplain said that religion, especially evangelical Christianity, was a constant at the academy. They said that until recently, cadets who did not attend religious services during basic training were sometimes referred to as “heathens.” They said mandatory banquets begin with prayer, including a reading from the Bible at a recent gala..."