US Military Launched Investigation into Content of Chaplain’s Prayer
The US Department of Defense Inspector General recently revealed it had ordered the Air Force to investigate the content of a chaplain’s prayer.
The context was the now well-known complaint by Michael “Mikey” Weinstein against US Air Force Chief of Chaplains (MajGen) Dondi Costin. In response to Weinstein’s complaint, the DoD IG said [emphasis added]:
We asked the Air Force IG to examine both the act of giving the benediction and its content. After conducting interviews and gathering additional facts, the Air Force IG found that Maj Gen Costin’s benediction was a generic, non-sectarian prayer seeking God’s blessing on the event’s honoree…
This is a shocking revelation, particularly in light of who did it. What business does the DoD Inspector General have analyzing the content of a chaplain’s prayer? Under what authority can the IG judge the content of the prayer? What regulation, law, or policy dictates the statutorily correct content of a chaplain’s prayer by which the IG will levy its assessment?
For that matter, how was the IG even able to review the prayer? There was no publicly available video, so did the IG require Chaplain Costin to provide audio, notes, or otherwise recount the content of his prayer — under oath?
The IG is supposed to be the office that recognizes when commanders overstep the limits of their authority and act inappropriately.
Believe it or not, the US Congress foresaw this potential problem in 2013. In the face of increasing attacks against public prayer in the military, the 2014 NDAA had originally been written by the US House to explicitly protect the public prayers of chaplains. Apparently unsure this was a problem in need of a solution, in an act of compromise the congressional Conference Committee voted instead to have the DoD survey military chaplains to determine
whether restrictions placed on prayers offered in public or non-religious settings have prevented them from exercising the tenets of their faith as prescribed by their endorsing faith group, and whether those restrictions have had an adverse impact on their ability to fulfill their duties…
Regrettably, the report (PDF) commissioned by the Undersecretary of Defense didn’t answer that question. In fact, the report was almost useless, which is why almost no one even knows it exists — though it did provide a few interesting tidbits worth discussing at another time.
The 2014 NDAA also required the DoD IG to report on the military’s progress in implementing religious liberty requirements passed by Congress. The DoD IG reported in 2015 that they’d found no “instance of adverse action” taken against a member of the military because of their religious expression. The DoD IG probably won’t consider their own investigation of a chaplain’s prayer “adverse action,” either — despite the potentially hostile environment toward religious exercise such an official investigation might create.
Ultimately, if the DoD IG investigates the content of a chaplain’s public prayer, then there must be “restrictions” on prayer. (If there were no restrictions, why bother to investigate?) But, contrary to the DoD IG’s implications, there are no publicly published restrictions on public prayer within the US military. (In fact, the Navy once had some in SECNAVINST 1730.7 and had to remove them under pressure from Congress.)
One is thus forced to read between the DoD IG’s lines — which “cleared” Chaplain Costin — to determine what standard they were using:
Maj Gen Costin’s benediction was a generic, non-sectarian prayer…
The DoD IG apparently believes a “generic, non-sectarian prayer” is permissible.
That begs the question: What if the prayer wasn’t generic — and what if it was sectarian?
That’s a question the DoD IG doesn’t answer — and that unknown is the reason the DoD IG has potentially chilled chaplains’ prayers throughout the entire US military. If you, as a chaplain, knew the Inspector General claimed the legal authority to judge the content of your prayer — and the unwritten “right answer” was a generic, non-sectarian prayer — how would that affect you?
You have two choices: Self-censor, and potentially negatively influence the religious liberty of the troops you are commissioned to serve; or pray in accordance with the dictates of your faith, and face potential complaints, investigations, and sanction — whether official or unofficial.
The DoD IG may have also just handed Mikey Weinstein his newest weapon. Weinstein has filed lawsuits against the US military over public, sectarian prayers by military chaplains. Many others have either complained or filed complaints over the same. Now Weinstein has reason to believe someone within the DoD IG is in the same ballpark as he — if not playing the same game.
Fortunately, courts have ruled the government cannot control the content of prayer — including the US Supreme Court in Greece v Galloway, as written by Justice Anthony Kennedy [emphasis added]:
Our Government is prohibited from prescribing prayers to be recited in our public institutions in order to promote a preferred system of belief or code of moral behavior. It would be but a few steps removed from that prohibition for legislatures to require chaplains to redact the religious content from their message in order to make it acceptable for the public sphere.
Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy.
The correct response to a request to investigate the content of a prayer is
The US military respects the constitutionally-protected rights of its service members and their faith representatives to exercise their faiths in accordance with the dictates of their beliefs.
That apparently wasn’t enough to dissuade the DoD IG from analyzing Chaplain Costin’s prayer, though.
As noted, Congress has previously tried to address the issue of the military trying to control the content of prayer.
Maybe Congress will have to do so again.