Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) recently tried to further erase the lines of separation between church and state by introducing an amendment to the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act that would allow chaplains to close a prayer at a non-religious event “according to the dictates of the chaplains’ conscience.” From the amendment:
Americans United explains what’s wrong with this amendment:
Bachmann’s proposal may not sound all that nefarious, but it is. Military chaplains, of course, are already allowed to offer sectarian prayers at sectarian worship services. A Christian chaplain presiding at a Christian gathering is likely to close a prayer “in Jesus’ name.” A Muslim chaplain at a Muslim service is going to offer prayers that reflect the teachings of Islam.
But chaplains are employees of the government, and they serve a diverse constituency, not just members of their own tradition. They are sometimes asked to offer invocations at military events where personnel from many faiths are present. At those, nonsectarian prayers may be requested.
As the Secular Coalition for America points out, in Katcoff v. Marsh (1985), the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that the “primary function of the military chaplain is to engage in activities designed to meet the religious needs of a pluralistic military community“; they are not authorized “to proselytize soldiers or their families.”
The House Rules Committee yesterday ruled that Bachmann’s amendment was not germane, and it was excluded from the legislation. However, it’s likely that at some point, this issue will come up again. A similar measure passed the House in 2006, but eventually failed to make it to the final bill. Last month, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) decided, “in the interest of religious freedom,” to allow state chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus at public events. “I just didn’t think it was right, the change that was made a couple years ago, to have an official state policy to tell chaplains of any faith how to pray, whether Muslim or Jew or Catholic or Christian,” said McDonnell.