Three years after a scandal at the Air Force Academy over the evangelizing of cadets by Christian staff and faculty members, students and staff at West Point and the Naval Academy are complaining that their schools, too, have pushed religion on cadets and midshipmen.
The controversy led the Air Force to adopt guidelines that discourage public prayers at official events or meetings. And while those rules do not apply to other branches of the service, critics say the new complaints raise questions about the military’s commitment to policies against imposing religion on its members.
Religion in the military has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, especially because the close confines of military life often put two larger societal trends — the rise of evangelicals and the rise of people of no organized faith — onto a collision course.
At the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., nine midshipmen recently asked the American Civil Liberties Union to petition the school to abolish daily prayer at weekday lunch, where attendance is mandatory. The midshipmen and the A.C.L.U. assert that the practice is unconstitutional, based in large part on a 2004 appellate court ruling against a similar prayer at the Virginia Military Institute. The civil liberties group has threatened legal action if the policy is not changed.
But the academy is not persuaded.
“The academy does not intend to change its practice of offering midshipmen an opportunity for prayer or devotional thought during noon meal announcements,” Cmdr. Ed Austin, an academy spokesman, said in an e-mail message.
In interviews at West Point, seven cadets, two officers and a former chaplain said that religion, especially evangelical Christianity, was a constant at the academy. They said that until recently, cadets who did not attend religious services during basic training were sometimes referred to as “heathens.” They said mandatory banquets begin with prayer, including a reading from the Bible at a recent gala.
But most of their complaints center on Maj. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, until recently the academy’s top military leader and, since early May, the commander of the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. The cadets and staff said General Caslen, as commandant of cadets at West Point, routinely brought up God in speeches at events cadets were required to attend.
In his farewell speech to the cadet corps this spring, General Caslen told them: “Draw your strength in the days ahead from your faith in God. Let it be the moral compass that guides you in the decisions you make.”
The groups of cadets and midshipmen, who do not know each other, echo the same view: that the military, regardless of its official policies, by emphasizing religion, especially Christianity, at events that students are required to attend sends the message that to be considered successful officers they have to believe in God.
“Nowhere does it say that you have to be a good Christian officer or Jewish officer or Muslim officer: You need to be an officer dedicated to the Constitution of the United States,” said Steven Warner, who graduated from West Point last month. “They tell us as an officer you have to put everything aside, all your personal stuff. But religion is the one thing they encourage you to wear on your sleeve.”
Cynthia Lindenmeyer, a 1990 West Point graduate who was a civilian chaplain at the school from 2000 to 2007, offered a similar view.
“As a cadet, you are at a very vulnerable place in your spiritual development,” she said, “and you want to be like the people who mentor you.”
Col. Bryan Hilferty, a West Point spokesman, rejected the idea that the academy endorses religion, even tacitly, or that General Caslen had said anything inappropriate in his time there. And others, including many cadets, endorsed that view.
In interviews on campus, 15 randomly selected cadets said that they did not feel religion was foisted upon them.
“There is a spiritual aspect here that people feel is part of the development of an officer,” said Brad Hoelscher, who graduated last month, “but not a specific brand of religion or even religion itself.”
Col. John J. Cook III, head chaplain at West Point, said, “No one is pushing them to believe.”
Referring to prayers at mandatory settings, he said: “This is something we have done in the military for centuries. It is not designed to make people religious. The majority of people here are people of faith, and a prayer asks God’s blessing on a gathering and on the food.”
The Air Force, however, took a different view in the guidelines it adopted in 2005. For example, the guidelines say: “Supervisors, commanders and leaders at every level bear a special responsibility to ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed as either official endorsement or disapproval of the decisions of individuals to hold particular religious beliefs or to hold no religious beliefs.”
Since the Air Force investigation, controversies over religion in the military have continued. Last year, the Army inspector general issued a report critical of seven officers, including four generals, who appeared, in uniform and in violation of military regulations, in a 2006 fund-raising video for the Christian Embassy, an evangelical Bible study group. General Caslen was among the officers.
The cadets and midshipmen do not claim practices at West Point and the Naval Academy are as egregious as those at the Air Force Academy, which were found to include expressions of anti-Semitism, official sponsorship of a showing of “The Passion of the Christ” and a locker room banner that said athletes played for “Team Jesus.” But given the vast authority superiors have over subordinates in the military, prayer and repeated mention of God in mandatory settings can communicate a requirement to be religious, military and legal experts said.
“You always have to be aware of the authority you have within your rank and uniform and the coercive potential of that authority,” said Robert Tuttle, a constitutional law expert and professor at George Washington University Law School whose father is a retired four-star Army general
At the Naval Academy, midshipmen have contacted the A.C.L.U. over the years, questioning the constitutionality of the noon meal prayer, especially after the 2004 court ruling, said Debbie Jeon, legal director of the group’s Maryland organization.
No midshipmen have wanted to take action until now, Ms. Jeon said. Three recent graduates, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that all 4,300 midshipmen enter the noon meal together and that before they eat they are invited to pray by a chaplain. The academy’s eight chaplains are all officers, and all but one are Christian. Those midshipmen who do not bow their heads with their hands clasped in front are conspicuous, they said, which makes some, especially underclassmen, feel very uncomfortable.
“By these people talking everyday, whether they make it voluntary or not, they make it very clear that this is the standard, and the standard is Judaism or Christianity,” said a recent graduate who was raised Roman Catholic but is now an atheist. “I feel it’s inappropriate to have this in a public institution.”
The midshipmen used an anonymous feedback system at the academy to voice their concerns to the administration. But its response, in a list of answers to questions about “the U.S.N.A. noon meal prayer,” contends that exposure to religious customs is important to the development of midshipmen and that those against the prayer should compromise.
The Navy’s arguments, however, were rejected by appellate court decisions in earlier lawsuits, Mr. Tuttle said.
Religious liberty advocates like Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation said fear silenced those troubled by religiosity at the academies.
“There is this massive sense of two things: that you are not wanted and you are made to feel like last-class citizens,” said Mr. Weinstein, a former Air Force officer. He added that he had been contacted by 31 cadets and staff members from West Point, including those who raised concerns about General Caslen, and 56 people from the Naval Academy, including 39 midshipmen. Almost all are afraid to go public.
At West Point, nearly all of those who raised concerns about religion at the academy in interviews were raised as Christians, though some are now agnostic or atheist.
They said the primacy of faith was apparent at West Point. This year, all cadets received a book about moral development based on the cadet prayer. At his commencement speech this year at West Point, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren started and ended with a quote from the Bible when God speaks to Isaiah, and he cast the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a clash between American and radical Islamic approaches to religious liberty.
General Caslen served as commandant of cadets from mid-2006 to last month. Cadets praised him as a military commander, but they said religiosity at West Point increased under him.
In a speech last August that all cadets had to attend, General Caslen told cadets they were all God’s children and that was why he respected them.
“It wasn’t the first time,” said Mr. Warner, who was raised Pentecostal but is now atheist. “He always brings it up when he talks about leadership or moral values.”
In an interview, General Caslen said he had a “hard time” understanding how describing the dignity of others in terms of their being God’s children would be offensive, but nonetheless he apologized.
He said he was careful not to use his position to impose his religious views on others. But he said that while one need not be religious to be a good officer, a West Point field manual on leadership talks of the spiritual formation of cadets.
“That is the leadership development model for West Point and that recognizes there is a supreme being,” he said. “The values of one’s faith play an important role in moral development, and they undergird the development of ideas like duty, honor, country.”
The West Point cadets and Navy midshipmen said they wanted the practices to end, and their hope is that the military will make changes on its own.
“I have more faith in the Army than most people do,” said Mr. Warner, 27, who served as an enlisted man before enrolling at West Point. “It can police itself if it chooses to.”