WASHINGTON Members of Congress and a Christian legal group announced on Wednesday that over 160,000 petitions have been gathered to protect prayer in the military, urging President George Bush to protect religious freedom in the Air Force.
At a press conference yesterday in Washington, D.C., the congressmen and the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) urged the president to sign an Executive Order that would put an end to recently adopted Air Force rules that ban military chaplains from sectarian prayer at certain public ceremonies and events of the military.
Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) took the congressional lead in the drive by sending a letter signed by 71 representatives on Oct. 25 asking the president to protect by Executive Order the constitutional right of military chaplains to pray according to their faith.
Since then, the ACLJ has worked to gather the petitions primarily through its website, arriving at the current number in less than two months.
Several representatives attended the conference to express support for the order.
"To say to someone that they have to pray in a prescribed manner, or that they can't pray according to the dictates of their faith, is something that is absolutely un-American," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.)
The Air Force changed its guidelines this year following allegations that evangelical cadets and officers at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. were harassing officers of other faiths or no faith. A court case involving such allegations is pending.
The new guidelines discourage the promotion of a particular religion and sectarian prayers at official events, and places limits on officers sharing about their personal beliefs.
"Chaplains are all about prayers and sermons. That's all we do. We don't know how to do anything else. We depend on the lawmakers to take care of the legislation and we'll take care of the soul and spirit that we're committed to," said George Baugham of the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers. He was present at the press conference.
"When a chaplain is ordered to pray a government prayer, he has established a religion, said Bagham. He becomes an agent of the sovereign. He no longer represents the church and his faith group. He is representing the United States government, which is prohibited by the constitution.
Rep. Jones said that the issue was not only about protecting Christian Chaplains but was about protection for all. He spoke about an erosion of First Amendment rights for Chaplains adding that he has received over 200 complaints regarding the issue during the past three years.
This is a serious problem We're talking about Christian chaplains, but who's to say that in years to come, we might sit here trying to defend a Jewish rabbi who's a chaplain and his right to pray, or a Muslim chaplain and his right to pray, he added.