WEST POINT, N.Y. — The top general at the U.S. Military Academy said that “valid concerns” about separation of church and state were raised by people who questioned why the Army football coach asked a staff assistant to lead his team in prayer after an upset victory last week.
The issue emerged after Coach Jeff Monken was shown in a video produced by West Point celebrating with his players and directing a member of his staff to lead a prayer after an upset victory Sept. 2 over Temple University. The video was taken down at the direction of Athletic Director Boo Corrigan after West Point received complaints because it was offensive to some people and leaving it online would have been “like grinding salt into the wound,” said Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, the superintendent at West Point.
“Maybe 90 percent of the people who were out there supported the prayer,” Caslen said. “But, when you look at it from a legal basis and from a legal standpoint, and then you look at it from a leadership standpoint, there were some concerns, and I think they’re valid concerns.”
Caslen, speaking Friday afternoon in a wide-ranging interview in his office with The Washington Post, was asked whether he saw Monken’s actions as a mistake or whether they were misinterpreted by critics. From a legal and leadership standpoint, Caslen said, it was incorrect for Monken to direct or strongly encourage a prayer while serving in a leadership position at a government-funded public institution.
“It creates an atmosphere where it is expected from everybody to say a prayer regardless of their faith or no faith,” Caslen said. “It’s like me as the superintendent of the Corps of Cadets saying, ‘Let’s take a knee and say a prayer together.’ I don’t have the authority to do that. I cannot use my position of authority — my public position of authority — to direct my subordinates to do something that is inconsistent with their rights. So, that’s probably where we crossed the line.”
The issue, first reported Thursday by the independent Army Times, emerged after the nonprofit Military Religious Freedom Foundation raised concerns publicly and said it had received dozens of complaints. The foundation regularly raises questions about issues of separation of church and state in the military.
Mikey Weinstein, the foundation’s director, said in a phone interview Saturday that he reached out to Caslen on Monday and told him why he thought Monken acted inappropriately. The video was taken down afterward and replaced with shorter one that still shows players celebrating the win and closing a prayer with “Amen,” but not the prayer itself.
Weinstein recalled that Caslen and other senior officers appeared 10 years ago in uniform in a controversial video promoting Christian Embassy, an evangelical organization. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation brought attention to it, and the Defense Department inspector general eventually found that they had acted improperly by using their uniform in a way that could be interpreted as U.S. military endorsement of the views espoused by Christian Embassy.
Caslen and Weinstein have continued to talk since then, and Caslen has shown leadership and nuance in his thinking, Weinstein said. Caslen said this week that Monken would apologize to his players and the issue would be addressed, prompting Weinstein to hold back on filing a complaint with the Defense Department inspector general, Weinstein said.
“He’s earned that,” Weinstein said of Caslen. “To Caslen’s credit, trust has been built up over his time there, and we trusted them to take care of it.”
Caslen said Corrigan had a “teaching effort” with Monken this week. Leaders, Caslen said, can’t show partiality to any one group of people over another and should build teams where everyone feels valued.
“So, regardless of faith … everybody in that room should feel comfortable that they were not under coercion to say that prayer,” Caslen said. “There’s a way to make that happen with the chaplain, and an invitation without a coercive effect and without showing reprisal against some of the other people that had elected not to participate. That’s the proper way to do that.”
The Supreme Court has consistently ruled against school-sponsored prayer in public institutions. Students, however, are allowed to lead voluntary prayer and other religious activities.