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Mar 24, 2017 5:06 PM

NH National Guard to keep prayers at ceremonies despite complaint, 'unsolicited' letters


PORTSMOUTH — The New Hampshire National Guard is calling letters from religious organizations about military ceremonies "unsolicited," affirming military traditions on the base will continue as they always have.

Last month, the state's Air National Guard caught attention of organizations across the country when an air guardsman based at Pease Air National Guard Base reportedly made an anonymous complaint to an atheist organization about the use of invocations at military ceremonies.

A statement issued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation — also known as the FFRF — on Feb. 14 was directed at commanders at Pease to "remind the Air National Guard that such ceremonies are illegal under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The statement goes on to call prayers conducted by chaplains during such ceremonies are "unnecessary and divisive."

However, Lt. Col. Greg Heilshorn said the New Hampshire National Guard did not respond, other than to continue allowing invocations and prayers at military ceremonies.

"The New Hampshire National Guard’s position is that we will continue as we’ve always done with the use of prayer in a variety of ceremonies, both in the Air National Guard and Army National Guard," said Heilshorn, a spokesman for the Guard.

Still, the FFRF's statement sparked reaction from religious organizations nationally, including a letter from Mike Barry of the First Liberty Institute. Barry is a constitutional attorney for the institute, which represents the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.

After seeing the FFRF statement, Barry wrote a letter exactly one month later addressed to Col. James Ryan, wind commander of the 157th Air Refueling Wing at Pease.

"I write to emphasize there is no legal requirement for you to give in to the FFRF’s demands," the letter said. "The Constitution, federal law, and Department of Defense regulations all support your practice of permitting uniformed chaplains to offer invocations at command functions."

Heilshorn called the statement and the letter "unsolicited" and clarified what they prayers are for.

"It’s always been a part of our tradition," he said. "The prayers are non-denominational on purpose. They’re meant to boost morale to provide reassurance and encouragement for not only the troops but their families."

Heilshorn said military ceremonies can have an invocation at the beginning and some kind of unspecific prayer at the end. These ceremonies can include before deployments, promotions or retirements.

Participating in the invocations or prayers during those ceremonies are completely voluntary, Heilshorn said, and though troops are in formation, they can choose to not participate by not bowing their heads or standing silently at ease.

There are also no repercussions for troops who choose to not participate.

Heilshorn said the Air National Guard never received an official complaint regarding the use of prayer at ceremonies at Pease and can't act on a complaint that's not confirmed.

Still, Heilshorn encouraged members of the Army and Air National Guards to express any concerns they have with their superiors.

"If the person (who reportedly complained) did come forward, our command at Pease would sit down and talk to them and hear their side of the story, without repercussions," Heilshorn said. "We’re always looking forward to improve upon our processes, so if people have concerns or suggestions, we’ll definitely be receptive to them."

Heilshorn said there are currently eight chaplains with the New Hampshire Guard, six with the Army National Guard and two with with Air National Guard.

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