How to fight back against mandatory prayer and win

Bookmark this one. This letter accidentally became the best walk-through on how to fight back against those mandatory ceremony prayers.

For 17 years, every military graduation ceremony I’ve been to has had an invocation and/or benediction.  This includes schools like: Basic, AIT, PLDC, BNCOC… and BNCOC at Ft. Eustis specifically named Jesus.  I’m an instructor and have attended ceremonies for WLC and an MOS reclassification course that have included prayer…until recently.

God's armyI’d locked horns with my boss over the issue of prayer in the workplace.  The first time was over staff meetings that ended in a prayer.  I had endured the first meeting that concluded with a prayer and walked out of the second.  I then confronted the issue and explained that there was no opportunity for an “opt-out” and that I was not the only one uncomfortable with this seemingly mandatory group religious exercise.  Prayer was still said, but it was done separate from the meeting by those who elected to attend in another location.  Eventually, it stopped altogether…since formal staff meetings pretty much stopped as well.

However, prayer at graduation ceremonies continued.  Our course’s graduation was informal until we moved into a new building.  As the first class to graduate in this new building, the course manager decided it was appropriate to have a formal ceremony to mark the occasion.  I was tasked with creating the outline.  I found an old outline and deleted the invocation and benediction.  When I briefed him on the outline and script, I confronted the issue directly.  The ceremony went like clockwork with nary a prayer, and it was good.  The second ceremony, however, not so good.  Prayer was lead by the course manager not as a formal part of the ceremony, but as part of his closing remarks.  I walked out as soon as I heard “dear heavenly father”.

This prompted me to not only confront the issue verbally, but in a letter as well.  In it, I tried to address the possible counter-arguments:

“Generic” wording  – despite consistent references to a monotheistic, patriarchal deity [JG note: Agreed, there is no such thing as ‘non-sectarian prayer’ or ‘universal prayer’]

1st Amendment religious expression – despite presence of “captive” audience with no opt-out)

Benefits of prayer by individuals and groups – despite those groups meeting voluntarily for that purpose, unlike a graduation ceremony

No prayer’ and ‘preference towards non-religious’ – preference to non-religious would actually be a speaker would spoke against prayer and belief…absence of prayer is neutrality

Is the prayer open to all faiths?  Would an imam or rabbi or other “holy” person be given an equal audience?

Tradition – we’ve always done it this way – those in the majority are comfortable with this, though in reversed roles…not so comfortable.

The student will only have to endure it once – but why endure it at all, and they have probably been through this before in basic, AIT, etc.

I could just excuse myself from the situation – but that doesn’t solve the underlying problem at all.

The next ceremony? No prayer

I wonder, however, if this will last only as long as I am around to keep objecting or if the powers that be actually accept the arguments regarding prayer and religious expression in official ceremonies.  It’s a small step in just one unit, but it’s a step forward.  If this is to ever change across the board, it will take many such small steps, I think.

-SSG Tim Rohal II

10/10. Somebody buy this man a beer, immediately.

*My reply below the fold*

He’s probably right that as soon as he’s gone, prayer will pick up again. Don’t fret though, he now has a strategy for his next location. Staff Sergeant Rohal also just gave us all a Standard Operating Procedure.

About ‘It’s a tradition’ – I’ve heard from more than a few people that this ceremonial prayer nonsense was unheard of until the late 1980’s. Far from ‘how we always did it’, that time period coincides directly with the evangelical push to influence government by occupying vast swaths of it.

It’s time to follow Staff Sergeant Tim Rohal’s lead and make a new tradition. Fight back against this unconstitutional mess right from the front. Don’t stop at IG, EO, JAG, or your supervisor – take it into your own hands. You may not have this opportunity until you reach certain ranks. If you see this type of opportunity, take it. If shit hits the fan, there are organizations out there that can and will help you immediately – American Atheists, FFRF, MRFF, AU, ACLU, MAAF etc. [Please do feel free to contact me directly and I’ll get you squared away.]

I know I’ve been in a similar situation when I had to start giving suicide prevention training. I was ordered to go get the chaplain to teach us not to kill ourselves – part of that Spiritual Fitness nonsense. Instead of that, I simply taught the class myself – got a standing ovation (seriously) and a heartfelt congratulatory message from the religious supervisor who originally sent me off to fetch the chaplain.

You’d be surprised how many of these people runaway, or otherwise change their minds when you raise a little hell. Keep it respectful and maintain military bearing and you can’t go wrong. You’re right, and they’re wrong. You’ve got allies. Use them.

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  • Scott

    Nicely written. My daughter just graduated AIT and I was confronted by a Major as to why I didn’t remove my hat during the “preyer”. I had removed my hat during the national anthem and replaced it during the “preyer.” The Major approached me after the ceremony and stated that I needed to remove my headgear during the “preyer”, to which I replied, “No I don’t. You have no authority to tell me that.” I believe he thought I was still active duty, my loss of hair requires a short haircut, and he was visibly agitated. He said I needed to respect others religious beliefs, to which I replied, “That’s just your personal opinion. Keep it to yourself.” He stated that I was being unreasonable and I said the entire “preyer” thing was unreasonable. He walked away agitated, beaten, and discouraged. We fought his silly practice during the 80’s and I am happy to see you are fighting the good fight. Thanks Justin.

    • R Stemmler


  • Michael Davis

    Don’t recall getting prayed over at Basic/AIT, OCS, or IOBC graduations.

    • Michael Davis

      …back in the 1980’s

  • I am no longer in the military, but as you said: You may not have this opportunity until you reach certain ranks.

    What then can those who are lower on the food chain do about this, aside from possibly approaching their seniors privately? Or is that their only solution?

    • If you can’t safely speak up, contact MRFF. Mikey Weinstein will protect your anonymity while speaking up for you. It’s what he does. It’s what MRFF is there for: standing up for those in the military who cannot safely speak up about such religious issues.

      • Justin Griffith

        Or, American Atheists, FFRF, American’s United, ACLU… There are many options. Mikey / MRFF ARE AWESOME though. (I’m the Mil. Dir. of American Atheists, and work with all of these guys)

  • joulesm

    Thank you for this post! I served in the Air Force from 2006-2010, and my unit had prayer at many events, from group calls to retirements to even sendoffs to those who are deploying! I wish this post was around back then when I was looking for support for this. The only thing I was able to control were my own promotion ceremonies. I made sure that the officer giving me the oath would not say the “so help me god” line 🙂

  • Thank you for the props, JG.

    I want to make a couple of clarifications/corrections:

    1. Apologies for whatever spelling/grammar errors – um, I had a few beers by the time I stumbled upon a JG “call to action” that prompted me to send that email. No apologies for the email itself, though.

    2. The email at one point might lead one to think that the halt in prayer also applied to WLC as well. I’m not a full-time WLC instructor so I do not know if prayers continue at graduations or not. The one class I did teach did have a “generic” prayer which I attempted to challenge when my arguments were less-formed.

    That said, my advice to the lower ranks: get information. Do not rely on rank or volume to make your point. Improve and enhance your arguments

    • …and develop your delivery. Be consistent and level-headed with your argument. Don’t get overexcited. And don’t be afraid to take your case to the next level. When I delivered the letter, I was told he’d have to talk to the LTC. I said I’ll have that argument with him, too.

      At the very least I’ve managed to carve out a little space for my own sanity. If it’s also helped others along the way, so much the better.

      P.S. Tapping this out on my phone has almost driven me to madness.

  • Mark Sickles

    Does anyone know if we can contact the Inspector Generals’ office to try and get the Army to ban prayer at ceremonies? I’m so tired of being told to bow my head to pray to a God I don’t think exists. But stopping one unit at a time seems to slow. This is a breach of our Constitutional rights.

  • Joseph

    A fool says in his heart, “There is not God.” (written by God)

    As a Vietnam combat veteran I found that most men that deny God find Him quickly when the led starts flying.

    Good luck when you meet Him, and you will.

    Seek Him while you can! Your Friend, Joseph

    • @Joseph, it’s an unfriendly friend who says, “Delude yourself as I do, so you can be like me. Lie to yourself as I must keep lying to myself. Your lie will help me support my own.”

      Allow me to better befriend you with this: You don’t need to be delusional. There are real atheists in real fox holes with real lead (noticed your spelling error) flying overhead, and they don’t waste time praying. They do their jobs, looking for military advantage, surviving, and protecting their brothers and sisters in arms.

      If you must spend your time praying on the job, consider getting a job meant for that purpose. And if you must proselytize, evangelize, or otherwise coerce others to self-delusion to match your own, ask yourself, honestly, what the world and your life could really be like, if you set yourself free. How much time and effort could you spend doing real good in this world, instead of pretending the cowardly way by kneeling in prayer to an imaginary being?