American Legion Group Demands Prayer at Public School’s Veterans Day Ceremony, but School Officials Say No

This past June, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Wallenpaupack Area Schools (in Pennsylvania) Superintendent Michael Silsby letting him know that if a clergy member ever again led a prayer at the district high school’s graduation ceremony, they would be hit with a lawsuit. Silsby wrote back in August: “The District will no longer have religious rituals as part of the commencement ceremony.”

Excellent. Problem solved.

So you can imagine how Silsby reacted when he learned what American Legion Post 311 wanted to do during Wallenpaupack Area High School’s Veterans Day ceremony next month. Normally, the event includes announcing the winners of an essay contest, singing patriotic songs, and listening to a guest speaker. But this year, the Legion made an additional, ungrantable request: Let our chaplain say a prayer at the assembly.

Silsby, not wanting to go through the same legal battle again, told them prayer wasn’t an option. It was a public school ceremony. There would be no mixing of church and state.

The veterans didn’t take the news so well. They’re now saying if the school won’t allow their chaplain to say a prayer at the event, they just won’t show up:

“It was like a bomb dropped,” [Hawley Wilson-Kelch Post 311 American Legion executive board member Pat] Thompson said.

“We didn’t want to [drop out],” Thompson said, “but this country is falling apart. If the veterans don’t take a stand, who will?

Veterans Day is our day and all we wanted was for our chaplain to say a prayer. There are no atheists in foxholes. Saying a prayer does not establish a religion.

Amazing how a group of veterans can fight for our country and fight to ignore one of the first things the Constitution says. Of course saying a prayer at a public school is an illegal endorsement of religion. Of course what they’re demanding is out of line and ridiculous. (And of course there are atheists in foxholes.)

It’s not disrespectful to say no to the veterans’ request. In fact, it’s downright patriotic to refuse their irrational demand. If the veterans can fight in wars, they ought to be able to handle a polite-but-firm “No, thank you.” And if they choose to whine about it and sit out the ceremony, it’ll go on just fine without them. There’s no shortage of veterans to honor and I’m sure the event will be memorable even if Jesus isn’t invited to the party.

(Thanks to Brian for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Amor DeCosmos

    “Veterans Day is our day”-I thought Veterans Day was for all veterans, not just Christian ones.

    • http://www.holytape.etsy.com Holytape

      I doubt they can even imagine a non-christian veteran.

      • Artor

        Anyone who drops that “No atheists in foxholes” line is seriously lacking in imagination and general awareness.

        • baal

          I got it just this week. A coworker ‘won’ a free lunch for 8. Turns out it was a bait and switch for a christian life insurance company to try and sign up more customers. They said we could trust them since they were xtian! I suggested I’m an atheist and my coworker blurts out, “I was a UU so I know atheists don’t actually exist. Just get one of you in a foxhole!”.

          • Gringa123

            What is a UU?

            • allein

              Unitarian Universalist

          • allein

            I was a UU so I know atheists don’t actually exist.

            I don’t understand how one follows from the other…especially considering all the atheists that post here about how they attend UU services along with lots of other atheists. I guess if you go to any kind of church, you can’t be an atheist..?

            • baal

              The person told me later that their leader made the argument that atheists were really agnostics since you can’t know for sure about god since you can’t prove a negative. If that sentence bothers you, it bothers me as well. I sent the person Dan Finke’s post on the distinction between the terms and a request to talk about it.

          • WallofSleep

            “I was a UU so I know atheists don’t actually exist.”

            I always suspected I was a figment of someone’s imagination, so it’s nice to have this confirmation. Sadly, it would seem, I am the figment of an incredibly pedestrian imagination. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be one of Dali’s figments…

          • WallofSleep

            “They said we could trust them since they were xtian!”

            Every time my grandma has been ripped off or conned good and proper, it’s because of that bullshit line. Poor woman never learned.

          • Buckley

            Fundamentalists don’t believe that the UU’s exist let alone a Unitarian god

          • Ryan Jean

            Response: “If you wouldn’t accept me speaking on the sincerity of your beliefs, then how dare you presume to speak for the sincerity of mine. The arrogance of it is stunning.”
            Shuts ‘em up every time.

            Alternate response: “I can have several veterans who would disagree on the phone in minutes… that is, if you weren’t just trying to score cheap points with something you knew to be false, in which case we all have to wonder why you feel the need to lie.”

          • bamcintyre

            I am a UU, and I’m telling you that most UUs are real atheists, not fake ones. Yeah, there are also agnostics, and even believers that are UUs. We will accept any belief system you have as long as you don’t try and tell the rest of us how to believe. The UUs are the most intelligent, socially active, positive bunch of people I have ever met. I’m proud to call many of them my friends.

            • baal

              i agree that one person isn’t a stand in for an entire group.

            • Sam

              From what I read and hear, UU is still stuck in a lot of magical thinking and ‘spirituality’.
              One of their (your?) six sources is: “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.”
              The others are similar, referencing religions.
              As an anti-theist, I don’t think that’s a positive thing.
              They might be nice people, but they’re still hanging on to ‘magic’.

          • Dave The Sandman

            UU?

            Unseen University?

            So how big was his pointy hat, and did his staff have a knob on the end?

        • Rain

          Presumably the people shooting at the foxholes do have atheists and then when the foxhole people get out of the foxholes and shoot at the other people who were shooting at them they now have atheists because they got out of the foxholes, and then the other people jump into foxholes and then the new foxhole people don’t have any atheists in their foxholes now. They go back and forth like that all day, probably.

        • bmorejoe

          I think there is a lot of truth to ‘no atheists in foxholes’. But terror is not proof. And we do not ( I hope ) spend our lives in foxholes.

          • Artor

            No, I don’t think there’s any truth to “no atheist in foxholes.” Why would anyone who doesn’t believe in a god start praying to one when their life is in danger? That’s just crazy talk. If you’re a lapsed or non-practicing Xian, I can see taking up prayer when in the shit, but that’s not the same thing as an atheist. When I find myself in times of stress, prayer isn’t the last thing that comes to mind- it never comes to mind at all.

            • HollowGolem

              Depending on how much of a conditioned response it is to certain stressors, prayer can be an almost reflexive response. Since most people are indoctrinated into their religion at an early age, they form habits related to the religion.

              I still mutter prayers almost on reflex when certain things happen to me, and I’ve been a nontheist for a decade.

              • Artor

                Admittedly, I swear by Jesus Fucking Christ, and Goddammit! I don’t think a reflexive, meaning-free exclamation counts as giving up your atheism. If you have zero expectation that your “prayer” will achieve anything, I think you can still consider yourself atheist.

            • Guest

              If you believe in God, why would you have need to dig a foxhole?

            • James

              If this God is protecting you, why would you have any need to dig a foxhole?

            • bmorejoe

              You may note that I said ” a lot ” not absolute. What does come up for you in times of, not stress, but absolute bladder leaking terror?

              • Artor

                Mostly “Ohshitohshitohshit! How am I going to get out of this?!?!” Fortunately, that doesn’t come up often.

                • bmorejoe

                  haha yeah me too – but I also find myself “please please please get me out of this” Which if I had grown up a-theist might translate to “mommy!!” or “daddy!!”. I guess my point if I have one is that arguing all this strictly on logic, rationality, science misses that most of us live in a world that includes strong emotion, love, fear, needs for comfort and affiliation and a sense of importance. There are nontheist ways to address such things – I say that but are there really? – but ritual, song, community all tend to go with faith structures of one sort or another. And people will not and prob should not give up that stuff.

                • bmorejoe

                  Also, what if those moments did come up often? – which they do for a whole lot of people.

                • Artor

                  If I find myself pleading for help, it’s generally from people who might actually be able to help, as in present and actually existing. I don’t think I’ve pleaded to an imaginary friend since I was 10 or 12, although I did try to use The Force a few times.

          • Sam

            I think not. My family has been atheist/non-religious since before my great-grandfather who fought in WWI. His diary was very personal, and never once mentioned prayer. My grandfather lived through WW2, as a member of the armed resistance here. From what I heard from him when I was young, he and his fellows didn’t bother praying either.

            • bmorejoe

              fwiw I find some militant atheists about as pleasant as rw fundamentalists – angry rigid and ready to jump on anybody who puts out a nuanced thought. I’m pretty much atheist, whatev that means – but I can see that belief and faith and magical thinking play and have played a huge role in culture and human hx. I’m more interested in understanding that than decrying it. I’m not sure that militant atheism does not serve a similar psycho-emotional role for atheist “true believers”.

              • Sam

                I’ve never met a militant atheist, but I’ll take your word, some people are just not very nice. But nuance when it comes to religion is, in my opinion, a bad thing. They’re not nuanced about what they think is bad, and what to do( or will be done by their deity) to people that don’t agree with them.
                Sure, belief and magical thinking played a large role in human history. But I think we, as a species, need to get past that. And understanding is a large part of decrying it.
                Finally, militant/fundamentalist anything probably serves that same role, be it a religion, an ideology or a hobby, for that matter.

                • bmorejoe

                  I’ve been beat up on “atheist” websites and seen others the same – name calling and ridicule don’t become cool just bc you are atheist – some “atheist” comment seems informed by rage and anger prob based on bad childhood experience – which I’ve had my share of also. re religion I agree with you about fundies of most stripes but there are a LOT of faith people who are liberal, open minded, non judgmental etc – they are not so noisy and of course they don’t argue theology a lot so they do not get noticed. I have friends and fam who hate the fundie theists and totally support separation of church and state etc. Re getting past magical thinking well I agree but good luck with that – I catch myself all the time seeking approval, trying to do right etc because somewhere in my head I still believe someone is keeping score. And I’ve got decades of introspective nontheism behind me.

                • Sam

                  I know what you mean, but those people either have troubles of their own, or don’t know what they are talking about.
                  Atheism doesn’t say anything about what you’re like, so, yeah, some aren’t nice folks. On religion: yes, there are a lot of good people of faith. That doesn’t mean they’re not wrong, or perpetuating a bad thing. I’d like it if they realised they didn’t need a fairytale to guide their lives.
                  Concerning magical thinking, I do my best, even making a small difference is worth it. And there is someone keeping score. You are. Doing the right thing is good because you know it is. Not because some invisible sky wizard is counting rather arbitrary sins.

                • bmorejoe

                  I think people need to explain their world. I like scientific explanation when I can get it and I think eventually the Darwinian creation story will win out because it can be tested against the earth’s record. But in the mean time people will continue to explain things in all kinds of non-scientific ways from god to socialist conspiracy to astrology etc. It is what it is.

    • Tyrrlin Flamestrike

      Thank you. I am a Veteran. I am an Athiest. All of us should be represented, not just the religious ones.

      EDIT: and I’m originally from that area in PA, though I didn’t attend Wallenpaupack HS. Sad that the Legion is acting like this.

  • # zbowman

    Christian group takes ball and goes home in tantrum upon *not* having the law broken in their favour. Stop the fuckin’ presses.

  • Bert

    It’s nonsense like this that led me to not support the American Legion. For the record, I am a Veteran and not an atheist, but the last time I checked, I fought to defend the Constitution not the Bible.

    • ShoeUnited

      And it is people like you who should be honored on Veteran’s Day. Thank you.

    • Buckley

      You Bert are the kind of soldier I respect – much like my grandfather – defend the whole Constitution or not at all. I fail to see how the soldier who defends their Christian world view is any better/worse than the Muslim who defends theirs. Having a secular state is something worth fighting for.

  • Joseph Richardson

    You didn’t mention one of the most ironic parts of the story: “Thompson said that the post did not have or request a prayer by the
    chaplain at ceremonies in past years, but it also wasn’t made an issue
    then.” [From the Pocono Dispatch story]

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

    Compromise? No. Recusal? No. Ultimatum? Yes!

  • Peter Mountain

    ” If the veterans don’t take a stand, who will?”” Yes, but your flimsy “stand” doesn’t include paying the legal fees resulting from the lawsuit.

    • tubi11

      ” If the veterans don’t take a stand, who will?””

      Er, Superintendent Michael Silsby?

  • Timmah

    “There are no atheists in foxholes”

    Pat Tillman would disagree jerkwads.

  • Ryan Jean

    Atheist in foxhole here. The American Legion has long been a disgrace to actual service masquerading as something noble.

    People like Thompson spend so much time wrapping themselves in the flag, that they’re beyond the capability to comprehend that they and people like them are the chief forces soiling it.

    • Buckley

      There is a reason why my grandfather was in the VFW and not the legion.

    • http://confessionsfromthepeanutgallery.blogspot.com/ YankeeCynic

      They’re a bunch of reactionaries that wrap themselves in a flag and use it as a punch line to support their oftentimes vile views.

      At least they’ve stopped acting like a street gang like they did in the 20s and 30s.

  • JWH

    You would think that they could reach a compromise of some sort — perhaps some sort of nonsectarian invocation.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

      Why? They never asked for a prayer before. The proper “compromise” is no, hell no, no prayers or invocations. Even “nonsectarian” invocations are still theist and usually monotheistic. The only truly nonsectarian one would begin with “To any god or gods or goddess or goddesses or sacred spirits who may or may not exist …”, and I bet that would go over, um, poorly.

    • Baby_Raptor

      Pretty sure that would still be breaking the law.

      Unless you’re talking about reading a poem or something.

      • JWH

        I’m thinking about something along the lines of the invocations that the atheist/humanist in Tulsa offered at a city council meeting. It doesn’t even have to be very deep:

        “As we gather today to honor those who have given of themselves for this country and for our freedom, let all who are here honor those freedoms in their hearts, in their words, and in their actions. The men and women assembled here put their lives on the line for something greater than themselves. Let all of us honor their courage by displaying the same courage in our own lives, and let each of us, in turn, commit to something greater than any one individual.”

        • Baby_Raptor

          Okay, yeah. That seems like it would pass legality.

    • Stev84

      Or maybe people could just hold a speech and talk about real stuff. This whole invocation stuff is ridiculous, no matter how non-religious it is.

  • Gus

    They’re now saying if the school won’t allow their chaplain to say a prayer at the event, they just won’t show up.

    And the downside would be….?

    • allein

      Guess I’m not the only one whose first thought was “well, then, don’t…” I’m sure the school can still manage to put on a fine assembly without them.

    • sam

      Well, for starters, what are we going to do now with these pork rinds and fatback?

      • Nate Frein

        So I have to be a christian to like pork rinds?

        • Artor

          I think you can’t be Jewish or Muslim at least.

  • Brian Westley

    At least the VFW is better now; they actually REMOVED their belief in god requirement for membership about 10 years ago at the urging of the American Humanist Association, though I think some individual posts may overemphasize the “god & country” bit.

  • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

    NO NO NO! STOP that no atheists in foxholes nonsense! I am a veteran and I am an atheist and I won’t allow you to speak for me sir. Quit your tantrum and do the right thing.

  • Stev84

    The American Legion is little more than a far-right political action committee. Their concerns go far beyond veteran’s issues and they just support Republicans without consideration.

    They actually don’t think that there is a separation of church and state:
    http://www.legion.org/documents/pdf/peraguide_0507_revised.pdf

    • Persephone

      In their 2012 platform document they support the Boy Scouts of America’s prohibition on gay scoutmasters, but they use dog whistle language to gloss over it:

      “The organization should not be punished or persecuted for using the term “God” in its oath, or for setting leadership restrictions based on a moral code that the majority of Americans endorse.”

      The whole damned document is creepy, but the creepy goes into overdrive in section 3. You can check it out here: http://www.legion.org/documents/legion/pdf/pillars_platform.pdf

  • SeekerLancer

    He says, “saying a prayer isn’t establishing a religion,” right after saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but doesn’t see how pushing that misinformation in a public school is state endorsement of religion. The cognitive dissonance is strong in this one.

    I say the school should go to the local VFW and ask if they’ll attend instead.

    • Stev84

      The VFW seems to be better than the American Legion, but they can be political hacks too.

      I don’t see why such displays of militarism belong in high schools in the first place.

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        Probably two reasons.

        1) Support past veterans and make people think about them. Military service today is confined to a very small percentage of the population, and many people won’t know any (or very many) veterans or soldiers aside from, maybe, their grandparents or great-grandparents who fought in WWII.

        2) Recruitment. Military recruiters go to high schools often, and if patriotic fervor can be increased before a visit they’d like to see that happen. My high school was swarming with military recruiters- they kept sending me stuff, even after I’d asked them to stop, and even though I was ineligible for military service, because I had very high grades.

        • Noki

          I scored really high on the ASVAB. I had a recruiter from every branch trying to get me to join. I was pregnant my senior year. I told them I wasn’t interested, due to having a child and not wanting to be absent from her life, etc. Multiple recruiters told me to put her up for adoption. I was too young to have a kid anyway, it would be better for both of us. It still boggles my mind that even one of them said such a thing, much less 3 or 4. O.o Military recruiters are something else.

          • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

            Anything to fill their quotas.

          • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

            That’s just horrible! I should think that you got to decide what was best for both of you. Some people!

          • Artor

            I’ll bet you cash those same recruiters would describe themselves as “pro-family.”

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          Geez, yeah. I did well on the ASVAB, and it took them at least eight years to leave me alone. I wish I’d known to just refuse to take it.

  • Sneezeguard

    It feels so weird to me that everyone calls public declarations of faith ‘prayer.’
    Proclamation seems a more appropriate word.

  • Chuck Farley

    I’m a Vet and an Atheist. This silly nonsense is what keeps me out of Vets groups. I had a hard time with the religious overtones of the military while on active duty, and it’s continuation through Vets groups keeps me from participating.

    • allein

      Your name caught my attention; I have a great uncle named Charles Farley. On my cabinet in my cubicle at work I have a copy of an article about him receiving the Silver Star for his service in the Korean War (though the paper it was copied from was ripped and I can’t see the date of the article; judging from the text it’s probably 1952 or ’53). I do not know his religious beliefs, though.

      • Chuck Farley

        Well, I hope I gave you a pleasant thought about your uncle. My name is an alias.

        • allein

          :) I actually only met him a few times; pretty sure he’s not alive anymore.

  • Tick Tock T.

    I can categorically state without fear of contradiction that i would remain an atheist whilst occupying a fox hole. I hate that sweeping generalized statement.

  • Mick

    Judging by your post they have never before asked for a prayer, but this year they did. Sounds like an insincere publicity stunt to me.

    They know that prayer requests will be refused so they make a prayer request and then pretend to be offended when the expected answer is delivered. They are not so much interested in saying the prayer as they are in the chance to play the martyr. What a bunch of hypocrites.

  • Rain

    they just won’t show up

    Not showing up for wars… not gonna happen. Not showing up for parade in school gym… sometimes you gotta take a stand.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Ouch.

      And of course this group correlates strongly with those who criticize draft dodgers and even people simply not volunteering to be sent to the Middle East.

  • arensb

    one of the first things the Constitution says.

    If I may pick a nit, freedom of religion is at the beginning of the Bill of Rights, which in turn comes at the end of the Constitution proper.

  • Jason Brian Merrill

    I live here in Hawley PA. What can I do?

  • C Peterson

    Most of us learned quite young that when the jerk with the marbles threatened to go home if we wouldn’t play by his rules, the smart thing was to let him go home.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    It annoys me how people argue if you disagree with vets you are being unpatriotic. Many think that there opinions are sacred because they served their country. While I appreciate what they did that does not mean that I can’t call out you for your bullshit.

    Kind of the same thing that happened during the shutdown. Fox was focusing mainly on the ww2 memorial being shutdown, but my thought was that it wasn’t anything special. Everything was closed down that wasn’t essential and memorials are not essential. There is no constitutional right to accessing a monument, but they acted like there was.

  • Mario Rodgers

    There are only atheists in foxholes. Just saying.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Heh, it makes just a much sense, doesn’t it?

      “There are no atheists in foxholes because everyone prays to God when they think they might die.”

      versus

      “There are only atheists in foxholes because people wouldn’t pray for help if they really thought there was a Heaven.”

  • Mario Strada

    Here is what I would like to know: has this group ever had a prayer in past years in the same function? A prayer held by their chaplain?

    They might have, in which case it’s time to terminate that tradition and have the prayer at some private venue. But if years past they didn’t (meaning someone else was conducting the prayer) then they are purposely picking a fight, which is unbecoming of them.
    They (and I incidentally) didn’t fight or serve for a theocracy, but to uphold a secular democratic republic.

  • Oswald Carnes

    Fuck ‘em. Good riddance to anti-American trash.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I am so Fucking tired of that stupid “no Atheists in foxholes” line.

    I EXIST. STOP ERASING ME FOR YOUR ILLEGAL GOALS!

    /takes breath and goes to punch a pillow

  • Rain

    Oh I just noticed he or she said there are no atheists in foxholes. Bwa ha aha. That’s a hilarious bubble he/she lives in. ROFL.

  • http://youtu.be/fCNvZqpa-7Q Kevin_Of_Bangor

    I spent a good amount of my childhood in an American Legion. I think my father is still the commander of his post but all anyone ever did in the legion was drink. I’m not saying all post are filled with drunks but post 248 in Temple Hills, MD has a lot of them. My father for years tried to get me to become a son of a legionnaire and his big selling point was you can get a beer for a dollar.

    Thankfully I don’t live in PA because I would personally tell these asshole to shove it and yes, I’m jaded towards the American Legion but for good reason. I watched a lot of good men drink their lives away.

  • Fentwin

    “…Saying a prayer does not establish a religion.”
    So Pat, I can only assume at this point that you mean specifically Christian prayers since I get the impression that if it were a prayer from any other religion, your arse would pucker so intensely and at such a velocity that you would be in dire need of an emergency pantiferous de-wadification.

  • A3Kr0n

    The veterans say they’ll show up to the school to help teach the students what veteran’s day is about and help them celebrate, then threaten not to show up unless they can do something unconstitutional.
    That makes sense!

  • http://confessionsfromthepeanutgallery.blogspot.com/ YankeeCynic

    I always refused to join the American Legion because of their crazy, right-wing views. Based on their “atheists in foxholes” comment it’s clear they don’t want me in their ranks either.

    Fucking fine by me. Enjoy fading into obscurity, you reactionary busybodies.

  • Stephen Miller

    That there are no atheists in fox holes is not an indictment of atheism, it’s an indictment of fox holes.

  • Gehennah

    I’ve served in the Marines, I’ve served in combat, I’m an Atheist. I know other Atheists that have put their lives on the line in combat.

    There certainly are atheists in foxholes.

  • bmorejoe

    Actually there is a lot of truth to ‘no atheists in foxholes’. But terror is not proof.

  • Dave The Sandman

    Im pretty certain that if the principle contacted the MRFF they would happily send along a whole squad of vets and serving men to act as the honor guard without the preaching as well.
    As for the Legion – well pass me the phone and I will call Whine One One and order a fleet of waaaaaaaaaah-mbulances for them. Screw them and the foxholes slur. They dont get invited again till they publish a public apology.

  • Mark Heil

    “Amazing how a group of veterans can fight for our country and fight to ignore one of the first things the Constitution says.”…

    Actually, as the first AMENDMENT, it is technically the first of the twenty-seven LAST things the Constitution says.

  • JC

    I bet you could find plenty of atheist vets to fill in.


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