Nightly ‘non-sectarian’ prayer aboard USS Abraham Lincoln in Hebrew?

Nightly ‘non-sectarian’ prayer aboard USS Abraham Lincoln in Hebrew? April 13, 2012

I’ve been screaming that there is no such thing as ‘non-sectarian’ prayer for years. There is no universal method of prayer, and many religions don’t even have such a thing. Still, the conventional wisdom in the military is that as long as you don’t say “Jesus” it’s somehow legal for them to pray at you (and force you to hear it and/or stand at attention for it).

This came from a field grade officer in the US Navy, and it illustrates exactly this point.

Sgt. Griffith,

I’m currently deployed onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72). Interestingly, it wasn’t so long ago that someone filed a complaint about this ship’s evening prayer. That complaint was dismissed because the prayer is considered non-denominational and doesn’t infringe on anyone’s rights. Never mind that it blasts over the PA system at about 90 decibels (the speaker is located right next to my bed in my stateroom…awesome!).

At any rate, in honor of the most recent holiday, they brought a Jewish Rabbi Chaplain onboard.  I don’t really have a problem with that part because I understand that the DOD sees this as providing for the well-being of its many Jewish personnel.  The problem I have is that on Saturday (day before Easter) the evening prayer was delivered by this Rabbi in Hebrew.  I’m pretty sure that by doing that, the whole “non-denominational” aspect of the prayer went out the window.

I’ve been an atheist for over 20 years and I already find the evening prayer barely tolerable as I feel it violates the separation of church and state.  This ship seems especially bad for some reason I can’t put my finger on (could be the speaker placement…yeah, I’m bitter about that!).  This latest development puts me over the edge but given the history and disposition of previous complaints, I can’t imagine that my complaints will be taken seriously by the chain of command.

<WITHHELD> I’m in a somewhat tenuous situation anyway.  The fact that our strike group admiral, the ship’s CO and just about every O-6 onboard knows me on sight (not for being an atheist) means that I would have to make the complaint anonymously or face some sort of backlash.  It’s a pretty shitty position to be in.

By the way, my online record has had “ZA” for my religion for about two years now.  As soon as I saw it as an option, I changed it.  Thanks for getting the word out about that.

Anyway, hopefully you find this particular turn of events interesting.  I know I did!  Take care, and keep fighting the good fight.



Even if non-sectarian prayer existed, it’s still unconstitutional

First of all, the Establishment Clause has already been found to mean this:

“Government can’t favor one religion over another, AND… Government can’t favor religion over non-religion.


It is one of the fundamental principles of the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the Constitution forbids not only state practices that “aid one religion . . . or prefer one religion over another,” but also those practices that “aid all religions” and thus endorse or prefer religion over nonreligion. Everson, 330 U.S. at 15. See Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 53 (1985)(“[T]he individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all”); see also County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573, 589-94, 598-602 (1989); Texas Monthly, Inc. v. Bullock, 489 U.S. 1, 17 (1989); Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 495 (1961).

Your Christian Privilege is showing

A very high-ranking chaplain once told me that he was all-inclusive because he didn’t say “In Jesus Name” during his invocations. I told him that was his Christian privilege showing, and he was taken aback. I asked him if he’d ever seen any soldiers turn to face towards Mecca. He had not. The chaplain paused, then offered that he wouldn’t stop them. How kind of a concession! Would he wait for them to pull out their smart phones to attempt to face the correct direction? (and is that through the Earth?)

Then I ‘explained’ that perhaps my ‘atheist version of prayer’ is to scream really loud, mostly in swear words. Then the chaplain smiled and said “Oh, I see what you mean.”

All versions of prayer need to be opt-in. I shouldn’t have to stand up and bow my head every time someone retires or gets promoted (I refuse to bow, but I have to stand). Religion has no place in a change of command ceremony, nor a change of responsibility.

Why is it there? “In Jesus name, you are the commander of 44th BCT!”…? We’re working on it. It’s going to take some time, but we will fix this.

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  • Kim

    Personally, I tolerate prayer in Hebrew a lot better than I do in English. Mostly I cant understand what’s being said. It sounds less trite to me. Of course I grew up with it, so it’s also familiar gibberish.

    I find English prayers (in Jesus name or not) awkward. I think the rabbi on that ship is doing the athiest cause a bit of a favour. Hebrew is clearly NOT a non denominational way to pray – but neither is a Christian patterned english prayer – nor a prayer from any other tradition, like Justin said. Praying in English only makes it less exclusive in that English-praying people make up the largest single group. It still doesn’t include everyone.

    Hopefully some of the nominal Christians on the boat were also made uncomfortable by the situation, and it can be used as a starting place for change.

  • Evan

    Yep, I’ve run into the ‘non-denominational/nonsectarian’ defense numerous times; the worst is that it’s always delivered with this condescending smile and tone that just smacks of patting me on my head and saying ‘that’s cute. If you understood real religion, you’d see that we’re already doing way too much for you in simply beseeching a supernatural entity who is, by pronoun usage, obviously masculine and singular.’ How in the world could that exclude any ‘real’ faith, eh? When I point out that there are numerous religious preferences in the unit, with my comrades-in-arms’ registered faiths running the gamut from atheist to Buddhist to Gardnerian Wiccan to Jedi and that none of these DoD-recognized faiths have tenants or rituals which are met by these prayers at mandatory functions, I’m ignored. Yay diversity and inclusive, team-building culture. 🙂

    I’m firmly with you on the requirement that any religious activity must be opt-in, and would really like to see them do a better job of not wielding social pressure like a sledgehammer to keep followers of ‘unpopular’ idealogies from self-identifying in the midst of a large group of people with faiths antagonistic to theirs. Good luck and thanks for your hard work.

  • Robin

    Please inject the most sarcastic tone of voice into the following:

    This person is a “field grade officer”? How could an atheist EVER get to such heights? “Everyone knows” that atheists are too immoral, cowardly, dishonorable, and hedonistic to be able to attain such rank. Just as “everyone knows” there are no atheists in foxholes.

    Kudos to this fine officer, I hope he is out and can be an inspiration to the atheists under his command.

  • Trebuchet

    Slightly off-topic, but how many O-6’s can there be aboard one aircraft carrier? That’s a Captain, which is equivalent to a full colonel in the Army. I’m having a hard time seeing how there’d be more than two, the ship’s captain and the commander of the air wing. And that’s only when the ship’s at sea with an air wing aboard. Can somebody who knows the military better than me explain?

  • Trebuchet

    Oh, for an edit mode! I have been able to determine from the ship’s website the the exec is also an O-6 but that’s as far as I can get. The site is pretty broken.

  • RW Ahrens


    The bigger the vessel, the bigger the crew, and the higher rank needed to command it. There may be other reasoning, but that’s pretty basic. Captains are a dime a dozen on aircraft carriers, and are called (on board) “Commodore”, as there can only be one “Captain”, who is the Commanding Officer (who is always called “Captain”, regardless of his real rank, whether as an Ensign or Admiral.). That’s known as a courtesy promotion, and is only used on board to distinguish the Commanding Officer from other persons whose real rank is also “Captain”. On shore, they are referred to by their actual rank.

    Tradition is king in the Navy!

  • RW Ahrens

    Oh, and I forgot to mention that aircraft carriers are usually commanded by Admirals. They are that big with huge crews. Called “Captain” on board and “Admiral” ashore.

  • baal

    (and is that through the Earth?)

    It depends on the local mosque and some mosques will actually post two pointers; one for direct through the earth and the other for shortest overland route.

    I’m in MN and the State House always starts its session with “non-sectarian” prayer. The non-xtian devout folks and non-believer members stand out side the chamber and wait for it to finish before entering. They somehow find it offensive to pray the wrong way ;p.

    One time (think it was just once)a Buddhist gave the “non-denominational” prayer. The xtians through a mighty snit, complained of repression of their views and also stayed out.

    go figure

  • Steve

    >”Oh, and I forgot to mention that aircraft carriers are usually commanded by Admirals”

    Nah, the ship itself is commanded by a captain. An admiral commands the strike group

  • I very sincerely hope that you succeed!

  • RW Ahrens

    Uh, Steve. No.

    A carrier is commanded by an officer with the rank of Admiral, perhaps a Rear Admiral. He is CALLED a “Captain”, because ALL ship commanders are called “Captain”, because that is the nomenclature of the POSITION.

    A task force is probably commanded by a more senior Admiral.

    Captains (actual rank) are OF-5, and are not senior enough to command a ship with a crew of over three thousand. An Admiral is an OF-9, and IS senior enough.

  • Trebuchet

    @RW Ahrens: I think you’re all wet.

    A Captain is an O-6. The current captain (ship’s position) of the USS Abraham Lincoln is Captain (rank) John D. Alexander. His uniform, as seen on the ship’s webpage, has four stripes, indicative of the rank of Captain. (click on “chain of command”)

    Note that “OF-5” is apparently a NATO designation, not the usual -US Military one.

    “OF-9” is the NATO designation for O-10, a four-star admiral. O-7 is a Rear Admiral, lower half; O-8 is a Rear Admiral; O-9 is a Vice Admiral, and O-10 is a full Admiral. (O-11 is a Fleet Admiral, five-star rank, and not used since WWII.)

    Justin, sorry for the derail. There’s no such thing as a non-sectarian prayer.

  • Trebuchet

    And back on topic, can you imagine the howling if the “non-sectarian” prayer had been in Arabic?

  • Justin Griffith

    Actually, the person who wrote this letter has flirted with the idea of doing an arabic prayer. I’d be interested in knowing how that goes, but still… Ultimately I’m against it.

    If you watch the film about Steven Hewitt “In God We Trust” (free on youtube). You’ll see atheists in the small town of King, NC having this same idea. Without spoiling the ending, I was extremely depressed. I felt like “WHERE IS THE HAPPY ENDING? WRONG THING HAPPENED!”

  • Matt Penfold

    I recall the judge in the Jessica Ahlquist case took on the claim that prayers can be non-sectarian and totally demolished it.

    There is not even a form of prayer common to Christian denominations, let alone when it comes to different faiths.

  • Steve

    @RW Ahrens

    I don’t know where you get your information, but Carrier strike groups are commanded by rear admirals