THE BLOG
04/24/2014 04:14 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2014

Pentagon to Join in 'One Voice United in Prayer' (On Separate Days in Separate Locations, Depending on Your Religion)

Next Thursday, May 1, is the National Day of Prayer -- that abhorrently unconstitutional congressionally mandated day each year when our government tells us all that we should pray.

Now, the organization that I work for, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), is not trying to completely abolish the National Day of Prayer -- not because we approve of it, but simply because the issue of the existence of this infelicitous day just doesn't fall within the purview of our organization's mission. What does fall within our purview, however, are any violations of military regulations or any religious discrimination against members of the military that occur because of the National Day of Prayer. And this year we have two such within-our-purview situations happening.

The first of the two is one that we are taking direct action to stop -- the planned appearance of uniformed military personnel at Shirley Dobson's big shindig at the Cannon House Office Building.

Each year, the big National Day of Prayer shindig in Washington, D.C., includes a whole bunch of participation by active duty uniformed military personnel -- a military brass quintet, a military color guard, a military vocalist singing the national anthem, a military speaker, and a military chaplain. The problem? Well, there are actually several problems, the first of which is that event is run by the National Day of Prayer Task Force (NDP Task Force), and the NDP Task Force is a non-federal entity (i.e., a private organization), and a slew of military regulations, directives, and instructions strictly prohibit the military from promoting or endorsing, or even appearing to promote or endorse, a non-federal entity. This prohibition applies to all non-federal entities, whether they are religious organizations, other non-profit organizations, or commercial enterprises.

So, last week, MRFF wrote a letter to the Secretary of Defense, copying officials in all individual branches of the military, demanding that this overt display of a military endorsement of the NDP Task Force be pulled from the event, citing the prohibition on military endorsement of a non-federal entity as our primary reason. (That letter can be found here.) Usually that's the end of the story with these things, but not so with Shirley Dobson (wife of Focus on the Family head James Dobson) and her merry band of warriors for Jesus.

Ms. Dobson & Co. decided to to try to circumvent the explicit military regulations on non-federal entities by claiming that it is not her NDP Task Force's event, but is really run by Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-AL), and that her Task Force is merely assisting the congressman. Seriously, would anyone who has ever watched one of these big Capitol Hill Jesus jamborees, with their NDP Task Force logos and signs plastering the walls and MS. Dobson clearly running the show believe that this is not an NDP Task Force event? Well, apparently, according to Stars and Stripes and other sources, the U.S. Army officials at the Pentagon have bought it hook, line and shameless sinker, and have said that they are not withdrawing from the event.

Now, as I said, this non-federal entity issue is just one of several problems with having uniformed military personnel participating in Ms. Dobson's prayer event. We at MRFF just use these particular regulations as the first step because they are usually enough to take care of these things. But, obviously, in this case, these regulations were not enough. Ms. Dobson & Co. are determined to find a way to circumvent these non-federal entity regulation.

Enter Congressman Aderholt.

Any event like this that is held in a building under the control of the United States Congress, such as the Cannon House Office Building, where the NDP Task Force event takes place, requires a sponsor who is a member of the either the Senate or the House of Representatives. In the case of the NDP Task Force's annual National Day of Prayer Events, this sponsor has, since 2007, been Congressman Aderholt. It is clear, however, from the statements made at previous years' NDP events by both Ms. Dobson and Congressman Aderholt themselves, that this is the NDP Task Force's event and that the congressman is merely assisting, and not the other way around as they are now trying to claim in their attempt to circumvent military regulations.

For example, in her introduction of Congressman Aderholt at the NDP Task Force's 2012 event, Shirley Dobson said, referring to Aderholt: "He helps us with security, requests the brass quintet, the anthem singer, the color guard. He's been a most wonderful support to this ministry."

And at the 2013 event, again in her introduction of Aderholt and again referring to the congressman's obtaining of military assets for the event, Ms. Dobson said: "He has been there for us and gone to bat for us."

Ms. Dobson's statements can be interpreted in no other way than as her clearly stating in no uncertain terms that it is Congressman Aderholt who is assisting her non-federal entity with their event, and absolutely not the other way around as they are now trying to claim.

Congressman Aderholt's comments at these prior years' events just reinforce Ms. Dobson's clear distinction of whose event this is and who is merely assisting. For example, after being introduced by Ms. Dobson at the 2012 event, Aderholt, referring to himself and his office, said: "Shirley was mentioning about the fact of what we did to try to help. We're just honored to have a chance to be of service in some way during this time."

So, since Ms. Dobson's organization's completely specious claim that it is really Congressman Aderholt who is running the event, and the Army officials at the Pentagon are apparently going to play along and accept this farce as an out, we have to use other regulations (including other sections of the same regulations that include the non-federal entity stuff). These other regulations prohibit the military from participating in Ms. Dobson's "Pharisee Prayer Pageant" (see Matthew 6:5 and Matthew 23:14) regardless of whether the event is being run by Ms. Dobson's organization or Congressman Aderholt.

Therefore, MRFF just sent a second letter to Secretary of Defense Hagel laying out the other regulations that would prohibit the military's participation in this event.

We also explained why even the regulations cited in our first letter are not dependent on the technicality of whether it is Ms. Dobson's Task Force or Congressman Aderholt running the event. You see, those prohibitions on the military's endorsement of non-federal entities prohibit even the appearance that the military is endorsing the non-federal entity. One DoD directive that we cited describes that appearance of endorsement as "a strong visual appearance of a DoD endorsement of the non-federal entity, its event, or its goals."

Another DoD directive that we also cited says the same thing, stating that military community relations activities, which is what events like this fall under, "shall not support, or appear to support, any event that provides a selective benefit to any individual, group, or organization, including any religious or sectarian organization ..." (emphasis added)

Now, seriously, would any reasonable observer of an event that is emceed by the head of the NDP Task Force and at which the walls are plastered with the logos and signage of the NDP Task Force not think that this is an NDP Task Force event, or that the military providing, all in uniform, a brass quintet, a vocalist, a color guard, a speaker, and a chaplain doesn't give "a strong visual appearance of a DoD endorsement of the non-federal entity, its event, or its goals?" Seriously?

So, does it make one whit of difference whether it's Shirley Dobson or her congressional cohort Robert Aderholt who is running the show? Absolutely not!

And then, of course, there's also that pesky religious discrimination issue.

NDP Task Force event coordinators have been required to subscribe to the following statement, agreeing to restrict any participation beyond simply attending an event exclusively to Christians: "I commit that NDP activities I serve with will be conducted solely by Christians while those with differing beliefs are welcome to attend."

The NDP Task Force put out an "Official Policy Statement on Participation of 'Non-Judeo-Christian' groups in the National Day of Prayer," which stated:

"The National Day of Prayer Task Force was a creation of the National Prayer Committee for the expressed purpose of organizing and promoting prayer observances conforming to a Judeo-Christian system of values. People with other theological and philosophical views are, of course, free to organize and participate in activities that are consistent with their own beliefs."

This year, NDP Task Force volunteers are required to fill out an application in which they must "Briefly share [their] testimony of [their] personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

Of course, the military's regulations prohibit, as stated in one that we cited in our letter to Secretary Hagel, that a uniformed military member can't be a speaker at "[a]n event restricted to any part of the public, based on race, religion, color, national origin, or gender."

Similarly, the Joint Force Headquarters Capitol Region / Military District of Washington website, on its page for "Requesting Ceremonial Support," which is what the planned military color guard, brass quintet, and vocalist for the NDP Task Force event would fall under, lists "Support for or during a religious service" under "requests that cannot be accommodated." I don't think anyone could possibly argue that this National Day of Prayer event is not a religious service.

And, like the others already mentioned, these rules and regulations would apply to this event regardless of whether it is being run by Shirley Dobson's Task Force or Congressman Aderholt.

And, last but not least, in addition to the military's regulations prohibiting military participation in events that discriminate based on religion, the room that the event has been held in in previous years, and is scheduled to be held in again this year, has a rule prohibiting events that discriminate based on religion.

The long-standing "conditions for use of meeting rooms" unequivocally prohibit the use any meeting rooms under the authority of the various congressional entities by "Organizations practicing discrimination based on race, creed, color, or national origin." The room in this case, the Caucus Room in the Cannon House Office Building, falls under the authority of the Office of the Speaker of the House, so, just for good measure, we decided to address our letter to both Secretary of Defense Hagel and Speaker John Boehner, informing Mr. Boehner that allowing Shirley Dobson's -- or Congressman Aderholt's, if you buy the sudden flip-flopping of whose event it is -- that allowing this event to be held in the Caucus Room, or any other room under the authority of Congress, violates Congress's own "Conditions for use of meeting rooms."

Now, moving on to the other National Day of Prayer situation that MRFF has on its hands -- the one to which my headline refers -- we've gotten quite a few complaints from personnel at the Pentagon this year.

This Pentagon thing definitely falls into the category of facepalm-inducing, how-on-earth-do-they-not-see-the-irony-here? stories.

Each year Shirley Dobson and her merry band of fundamentalist Christian prayer warriors come up with a theme for the National Day of Prayer, and this year's theme is "One Voice United in Prayer."

While the Pentagon is not hosting what is an "official" NDP Task Force event (MRFF put a stop to that back in 2010 when we got that year's NDP Task Force honorary chairman Franklin Graham disinvited from the Pentagon event), they are using the NDP Task Force's "One Voice United in Prayer" slogan. That's fine. No regulations violated by simply using the same slogan. However, the powers that be at the Pentagon either have a serious reading comprehension problem or a pretty bizarre notion of what "One Voice United" means.

How are they uniting as "one voice?" Well, by having separate events on separate days in separate locations to split everybody up according to religious beliefs! Kind of defeats the spirit of that "one voice" thing, huh?

The Protestants, except for those Episcopalian types, get the nice big event in the auditorium complete with world-class musical entertainment on the actual May 1 date of the National Day of Prayer. The Catholics get to have their event on the right day, but in the Pentagon's chapel. Muslims have to wait a day for their event. Then there's another Protestant gospel service thrown in the middle of all this. The Episcopalians, who are apparently not the same as Protestants have to wait until May 7. And, last but not least, there are the Hindus and Jews, who get to observe the May 1 National Day of Prayer on May 8.

And what does the Pentagon call this One-Voice-anything-but-United schedule? Why, it's a "Special Pentagon Multi-faith Emphasis for the National Day of Prayer," of course!

Needless to say, MRFF's clients at the Pentagon, who come from a variety of religious traditions, are not pleased with this special "multi-faith emphasis." I think someone needs to tell the Pentagon that "multi-faith" and "separate but unequal" are not exactly synonymous terms.

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