As Barack Obama prepares to take office, all sorts of advocacy groups are angling for his attention. And atheists, too, are seeking his blessing. This week the Secular Coalition for America, a national lobbying group for “atheists, humanists and freethinkers,” released its wish list. The group is not looking for Obama to remove “In God We Trust” from US currency. It has a more a modest agenda: countering what it claims is discrimination against atheists and non-Christians in the military.
The group is requesting that Obama appoint leaders who are committed to a secular military and that he issue a directive to the military that explicitly prohibits proselytization, prayers at mandatory events, and official statements endorsing a particular faith. The proposal also advocates creating a “commission for religious accommodation” within the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s office.
According to the group, major news outlets have reported at least twenty incidents in which military personnel have been coercively proselytized in the past five years. In 2005, Air Force Academy alumnus Mikey Weinstein filed a lawsuit (ultimately unsuccessful) against the Colorado Springs Air Force Academy, alleging that non-Christians at the Academy faced discrimination from evangelical Christians. That same year, The New York Times quoted the Air Force Chief of Chaplains, Cecil Richardson, as saying chaplains “reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched.” Recently General David Petraeus endorsed the book Under Orders: A Spiritual Handbook for Military Personnel, which is not officially affiliated with the US military.
Surveys show that 21 percent of military personnel identify as atheists or as having “no religion.” But when it comes to persuading Obama to take these protect-the-secularists steps, there’s no telling if these atheists have a prayer.