Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee last Wednesday approved a military bill that would allow chaplains to pray "according to their own conscience," while rejecting an amendment requiring chaplains to show "sensitivity" toward other faiths.
Deep inside in the 538-page National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2007 is a section that says, "Each chaplain shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain's own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible."
Some evangelical chaplains have been pushing for legislation that allows them to offer ceremonial prayers in Jesus' name. The conflict has emerged since reports of proselytizing and bias against non-Christians at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2005.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) attempted to modify the bill by adding a clause calling for chaplains to "demonstrate sensitivity, respect and tolerance for all faiths present on each occasion at which prayers are offered."
Israel's amendment failed on a near party-line vote, 31-26. Only one Republican, Candice Miller of Michigan, supported it.
Israel, who is Jewish, said the vote "undermines values of pluralism." The bill now goes to the full House.
The Anti-Defamation League, the world's leading organization against anti-Semitism, said it is "deeply concerned" about the provision, which could be used to circumvent the separation of church and state by promoting sectarian prayer at official military ceremonies.
"The divisive language of this bill seems clearly designed to promote and facilitate sectarian prayer by chaplains in official military ceremonies and events, including those at which attendance is mandatory," said Abraham Foxman, ADL national director.
"At a time when the military is still dealing with the fallout from the revelations of religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy, it is disturbing that members of Congress would seek to encourage military chaplains to disregard the constitutional separation of church and state."
Foxman said there is nothing in the Constitution or in current military regulations that prevents chaplains from praying in whatever matter they choose while performing religious services where attendance is voluntary.
"Governmental institutions bear a special responsibility to avoid religious coercion and to respect the rights of religious minorities guaranteed by the Constitution," Foxman said.
A Baptist minister in Oklahoma said the bill "reflects a mistaken misunderstanding of conscience."
"Conscience is looking at yourself through the eyes of others," said Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. "If chaplains are praying out loud in public, they need to look at what they are doing through the eyes of the people listening to their prayers. If people of minority faiths are present, they need to be considerate of their consciences and say non-sectarian prayers. "
Prescott is also president of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He said prayer is a private act of worship, and if prayers by chaplains are "merely perfunctory and part of their ceremonial duties, they are not addressed to God."
"If prayers are addressed to God, it is an act of worship," he said. "It violates the First Amendment to force everyone to participate in an act of worship."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.