Military Nearly Pulls Atheist from Graduation Ceremony After He Refuses to Bow Head and Clasp Hands in Prayer

Sometimes, people in leadership positions just assume everyone believes in God. It’s not that they’re trying to force their religion onto you; they just don’t know any better — like a teacher who tells every student to stand up and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, not understanding that it’s perfectly fine if a student doesn’t want to say that we’re living in a nation “Under God.”

It’s even worse in the military — when commanding officers tell you to pray along with everyone else, not realizing that some soldiers may not believe in god and don’t want to bow their heads. How do you tell your superiors that you’re not going to follow that particular order?

That’s the situation one 20-year-old soldier was placed in yesterday last month during his graduation from Advanced Individual Training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina.

During the rehearsals for the ceremony, “officials ordered the soldiers to bow their heads and clasp their hands during the chaplain’s benediction.”

“I immediately pointed out that not only is a prayer at a public ceremony unconstitutional, but to force someone to give the illusion of religion when the individual does not believe in any religion is blatantly wrong and very illegal,” the soldier said in an e-mail to the [Military Religious Freedom Foundation].

The rest of the platoon “groaned” at the soldier’s stance, but the soldier wrote that “I stood my ground.”

“When you stand up like this, you make yourself a tarantula on a wedding cake,” said Mikey Weinstein, founder of the foundation. Weinstein said the soldier was “brave” for taking a stand.

It takes a lot of courage to do something that unpopular — especially when you know people will wrongly assume you’re doing it to get attention or to make the ceremony “all about you.” That’s not the reality of the situation. No Christian soldier would want to pray to Allah or be forced to say “God doesn’t exist” and no atheist soldier should have to pretend like a Higher Power is watching over all of us.

After the unknown soldier protested, he braced himself for punishment:

Officials at Fort Jackson threatened to pull the soldier from the ceremony but then backed down, according to the soldier, after hearing that the soldier had contacted the religious freedom foundation.

When the soldier refused [to bow his head], citing a Supreme Court ruling that states there was no requirement to pray in public ceremonies, the officer then took the matter to the platoon sergeant, who also told the soldier to bow their head for uniformity purposes, according to Patrick Jones, a Ft. Jackson Public Affairs Officer.

Upon refusing again, the platoon sergeant contacted the company commander who then told the soldier that there was no requirement to pray or bow ones head, but was required to remain at “attention”, Jones stated.

I don’t know who the soldier is, but hats off to him and anyone else who is in his position. He did the right thing by standing up for his own beliefs and maybe some of the commanding officers learned about the Constitution in the process.

(Thanks to Jenea for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Garren openID

    Christian privilege at work.

  • Edmond

    This takes a LOT more courage to stand up to than the typical atheists encounters in things like city council meetings or lobbying for license plates, even more than children standing up to religious bullies in school.  Here, your co-workers are ARMED.

    • http://twitter.com/dalestaines dalestaines

      Standing up for yourself in any situation is courageous.  We should applaud it in all aspects.  If anything, I would suspect the bravery of a child against their peers to be the most scarce. 

    • Len

      Your co-workers are armed, but the implicit understanding is that they would offer their life for you and you for them.

    • Anonymous

      I can’t tell if you’re serious. Are you honestly saying some religious nut might shoot you for doing this? Religious nuts never cease to amaze me, so I can imagine it.

  • http://twitter.com/notlobau John

    Another example forced forced religious indoctrination in the military.
    This soldiers brave stance against dogma is to be admired.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=28409695 Chris Green

    As brave as it is, his career in the military is pretty much dead in the water since he’ll be blacklisted for it so he’ll probably be denied promotion or commendation, least after a certain point.

    • PJB863

      This is an enlisted person not an officer, so stuff like this is somewhat less likely to be a career hindrance. 

      BTW, at no point in the original article does it indicate this is a male soldier.  In fact, in the CNN article, gender as well as name have been withheld.  This may well be a female soldier.

      • Anonymous

        It says “HIS graduation”.

    • Mark Henderson

      First of all, his ‘military career’ hasn’t started yet, since he’s still in basic training(Ft. Jackson is a basic training and AG post, I attended my IET there), so what he does here, aside from official training really has no merit or bearing on the rest of his career, unless he breaks the rules and gets discharged.  The fact that he is an ‘out’ atheist doesn’t give any NCO or officer the right, reason or motivation to do this ‘blacklisting’ you are talking about.  There’s no such thing as ‘blacklisting’ in the Army.  And if one is denied promotion, it is because they have shown little to no merit in service, or they fucked up somewhere and are close to or in the process of being court-marshaled.   Commendations are only rewarded to soldiers who perform their duties with merit: Bravery, duty, leadership, honor, integrity, selfless-service, and personal courage; none of which have anything to do with their religious affiliation or lack thereof. 

      If you were ever in any branch of the military, you’d know these things, but since you clearly never were, I’d suggest brushing up on your military credo before you post tripe like this again, misrepresenting my beloved Army.

      • Anonymous

        I don’t think it will affect his career either, but it’s not really hard for a superior to give a soldier a bad evaluation. I’ve also read of plenty of cases where someone was transferred to a new post only for the old one to call ahead and warn them that he is a “troublemaker”. Just for speaking up about something. I’m not expecting it here (because an officer intervened and stopped the harassment), but it can happen

        Btw, it’s spelled “court martial”

      • Me

        Your idealism is strong, but your perception of reality quite weak, and I would suspect that you have no military experience at all. 

        I spent 9 years (59-68)  in a quasi-military intelligence role, working with soldiers, sailors, and airmen every day.  I can state with certainty that, promotion to and beyond Sergeant E5/Lieutenant O2 for them was completely dependent on “political” factors, not the skill or diligence with which they filled their unit role.  

      • Anonymous

        The “blacklisting” doesn’t need to be official. Of course it won’t be. There won’t be a note on this person’s record saying “INELIGIBLE FOR PROMOTION. REASON: ATHEIST”.

        But do you seriously deny that a person could be followed by a cloud for being an “out” atheist? It can happen in the military just as it happens in private-sector employment. If you don’t believe this, I question whether you are an atheist, or if you are, if you pay any attention to the atheist movement (yes, “movement”).

      • Nashkita77

        extra activity outside the normal work hours, such as church attendance, coaching, volunteering, is all considered for promotion for higher levels.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    And since all of those soldiers swore to uphold the Constitution rather than to uphold a particular religion, let’s hear it for all those other brave soldiers who said, “I’m a Christian, and that soldier is right! No one should ever be forced to pretend to pray, and no one should be punished for standing up for the Constitution.”


    (crickets)

  • Rod Chlebek

    That takes guts. Especially in basic training.

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    They should be commending him for his courage. I know the Wizard of Oz would have.

  • Anonymous

    Oddly, I think the atheist soldier here has it easier than one of a non-Christian faith would, depending on the wording of the prayer.  Arguably, a Muslim soldier, for instance, would need to request not only not praying to Christ, but also being given the opportunity to pray to Allah.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Reed/692599362 Paul Reed

      I’m not sure, but don’t Muslims pray at specific, set times? It only seems to be Christians that pray for show.

  • Marycaroline7

    The thing that bothers me is that all the other soldiers did not immediately stand up for this guy.  Aren’t those soldiers sworn to uphold the rights of all Americans and not just Christian ones?  After all, it’s not just Christians whose tax dollars pay their salaries.

    • http://twitter.com/AtheistJohnny Johnny

      It’s harder to stand up for someone’s rights when you don’t know it is one of their rights.

  • Deathby2

    The NCO’s should be demoted for not knowing military policy.

    • JV

      Assuming this is a first offence, I disagree. Demotion would be too harsh. There are effective ways of disciplining without such drastic measures.

  • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

    That’s the situation one 20-year-old soldier was placed in yesterday…

    You need to proofread.  This happened nearly a month ago, not yesterday.  It has been <a href="href="http://christianfighterpilot.com/blog/2011/10/24/update-atheist-soldier-refuses-to-bow-head-at-graduation/&quot; widely discussed; the Soldier’s fellow graduates even weighed in.
    Contrary to Richard’s assumption, there weren’t crickets even from Christians. Some did partially support the Soldier in principle; however, there were indications the way he went about it was wrong, and some of his claims were wrong.  The advice to anyone — religious or not — is to make sure you aren’t in the wrong yourself before you cry “help, I’m being repressed!”
    In short, there’s more to the story than is being said here.

    I don’t know who the soldier is, but hats off to him…

    Since so many assume this has something to do with Christianity, your word choice is a final irony.  The Soldiers did not remove their hats — which most Christian men WOULD do if they were actually praying.

    • Drew M.

      I wasn’t aware that cover (or as you say, “hat”) protocol allowed for them to be removed whilst praying. Hell, they aren’t removed for either taps or the national anthem.

      Speaking of irony, funny how you butchered a link. You could use some proofreading yourself.

      • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

        I wasn’t aware that cover…protocol allowed for them to be removed whilst praying.

        Who said it did?  You seem to have misread the butchered comment.

        • Drew M.

          You said,

          Since so many assume this has something to do with Christianity, your word choice is a final irony.  The Soldiers did not remove their hats — which most Christian men WOULD do if they were actually praying.

          I inferred that since the soldiers did not remove their covers during the ceremony, they were not behaving as Christian men. Thus, it doesn’t have anything to do with Christianity.

          However, since protocol doesn’t allow for covers to be removed for a prayer, then a conclusion cannot be drawn by their non-removal. Thus rendering your point as incorrect (your point as I inferred it, that is).

          My apologies if I got this wrong. By all means, clarify.

          • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

            Thus, it doesn’t have anything to do with Christianity.

            You’re right.  This has nothing to do with Christianity.  But look how many commenters here DO connect this to Christianity.

            The protocol was for military uniformity.  Contrary to the claims here, no one was demanding anyone pray.  In fact, other atheists in the formation reportedly took issue with this soldier’s conduct.

            • Drew M.

              Oh wow. I just got quote mined.

            • Anonymous

              Dowty, don’t you have an NCO to illegally harrass?

  • http://twitter.com/AtheistJohnny Johnny

    CNN makes a few wording mistakes, so I won’t hold it against you Hemant, but his commanding officer actually appears to be the only one in his leadership to do things correctly.The part that confuses some (especially those who haven’t been in the military) is the difference between “non-commissioned officers” and “officers.” CNN pulls a typical misstep after first using “non-commissioned officer” by shortening it to “officer” later in the article. There is a significant difference between the two. If it is going to be shortened, it should be shorted to NCO. In the Army, all NCOs are sergeant of varying ranks.So to summarize with better description, this soldier’s sergeant instructed … when the soldier declined, the sergeant escalated to the platoon sergeant who also instructed … when the soldier declined again, the platoon sergeant escalated to the company commander (who is the fist “officer” involved) … And this commander responded correctly when he “told the soldier that there was no requirement to pray or bow ones head, but was required to remain at attention.”Or to create an analogy that more might relate to… These four people could be a worker, a team lead, a supervisor, and the manager.In my opinion, as noteworthy as it was that some leadership attempted to force religious participation and this soldier stood their ground, it should be equally noted that this commander understood policy and responded correctly.I take this story to heart because I went through a similar scenario during my time in the Army. I was a sergeant and my platoon sergeant told me I was required to attend a ceremony that was purely religious. I resisted and my platoon sergeant insisted. I lucked out when my commander overheard and interjected himself in the conversation, and set my platoon sergeant straight on required religious participation.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for clarifying that for readers. Having spent some time in the military myself, I imagine the reason the sergeants (and many of the man’s fellow soldiers) were distraught was because of the lack of uniformity, not necessarily because this man was specifically refusing to pray.

    • Mairead

      “In the Army, all NCOs are sergeant of varying ranks.”

      Corporals are also NCOs. (http://www.army.mil/article/18109/corporal-stepping-into-the-world-of-ncos/)

      • http://twitter.com/AtheistJohnny Johnny

        Yes, you are correct; I always forget about that rank, despite having held it, due to its general disuse (at least during my time serving).

  • Charles Black

    It just goes to show that Christians are truly the biggest bullies in the world.
    Christianity: Bullying the world for 2000+ years into believing “any day now” he’ll come back.

    • Anonymous

      Meh, Christians certainly are bullies–it’s not hard to find examples in American society–but I’d have to say that currently, nutball Muslims take the cake. Religion in general is organized bullying.

  • http://twitter.com/dalestaines dalestaines

    I’m happy the guy knew enough about his rights and policy to quote and stand firm.  Sad that we have to be prepared like that, but still a good move on his part.

  • Anonymous

    Good outcome here, and the part the I am most pleased about is that maybe the Sergeant learned something.  The next time something like this comes up, he’ll know that it’s not OK to order a soldier to participate in a religious observance.  At least not while he’s working for this Captain!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Laudable editorial in the L.A. Times:

    There are atheists in foxholes

  • William Garvey

    I’m actually pleasantly surprised that this didn’t have to go higher than the company commander level.  That’s effective frontline leadership!  I remember in the past that these things often ended up at Legal or the IG before they were resolved.

  • Anonymous

    Ok, I really feel the need to express my opinion on this…

    Look guys, not everything that happens in the military is some *vast* right-wing religious conspiracy.  Having spent 10 years of my life in the US Navy, I have a pretty good idea of what went down at that graduation ceremony.  As some other people have stated, this is an issue of UNIFORMITY, not of religious freedom, and has probably next to nothing to do with Christianity.  I guarantee the other soldiers were groaning and rolling their eyes because this guy was making a big deal out of something that most of them could care less about…

    Here’s another anecdote to illustrate my point…

    I remember being an atheist in the military (yes I am a Christian now), and there was a young baptist kid who wrote “Jesus Saves” with a chapter/verse reference on the corner of his white board (we used white boards w/ dry erase pens to help memorize the material we were given to study in class).  An NCO noticed this and told the kid to erase it from his white board, as the NCO felt that it was not appropriate.  The baptist kid refused, he eventually went in front of the CO because of his actions, and was eventually discharged (yes, DISCHARGED) from the military.  This was not the first incident where he refused to conform because of his religious beliefs, but apparently it was the last straw.  At the time most of us in the classroom rolled our eyes and were actually telling the kid to erase the reference, as most of us were not religious and we felt that it was mildy offensive, and we couldn’t understand why the kid couldn’t just follow orders and do what he was told…

    • PJB863

      While we may disagree on religion, you are SO right about what goes on in the military!  Just like anyplace else, there are nutcases, normal people, etc.  The name of the game in the military is uniformity and adherence to regulations/standards.  I hesitate to say conformity, because that seems to go a little deeper into our beings and implies something different.

    • Geeforson

      Removing a religious reference is similar to affirming religiosity in what way?

  • http://www.sacredmisfit.com Sarah

    This soldier was very brave.  Being forced to ‘bow your head and pray’ should not have any part in our American military.  We are the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’, which I think this soldier was.  I am very sorry that he is experiencing discipline for refusing this order.  It is very sad.

  • The_Soldier

    To correct some misinformation in this article, apparently due to my superiors lying.  My company commander at first threatened me with UCMJ action, after multiple NCOs said they may pull me from the ceremony.  After the commander met with the chaplain, who I had previously brought grievances to and knew of my contact with MRFF, he then changed his mind.  Personally I bet it was the threat of legal action that changed his mind, and the threat of legal action no matter what that caused them to lie in the investigation.


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