By Blake Page
December 05, 2012 “Huffington Post” – The title West Point Graduate carries a great deal of weight in this world. Those who earn it are given a “golden ticket” and wear a “ring of power” which will certainly carry them to successful careers with doors flung open in the military, in business, even in personal relationships; as so many are seduced by the historic prestige of the United States Military Academy. All of these things seem enticing, but for me personally they are not worth it. As I write this, I am five months from graduation. After nearly three and a half years here, there is no reason to suspect that I would be in any way incapable of completing the final requirements and walking across the stage in Michie Stadium with diploma in hand in another 174 days. Choosing to resign at this point also carries significant risk. The Army may seek recoupment in the form of about $200-300k which I will personally owe, or an additional term of up to 5 years of enlisted service. What could possibly compel me to pass over this incredible opportunity in exchange for such harsh penalties?
While there are certainly numerous problems with the developmental program at West Point and all service academies, the tipping point of my decision to resign was the realization that countless officers here and throughout the military are guilty of blatantly violating the oaths they swore to defend the Constitution. These men and women are criminals, complicit in light of day defiance of the Uniform Code of Military Justice through unconstitutional proselytism, discrimination against the non-religious and establishing formal policies to reward, encourage and even at times require sectarian religious participation. These transgressions are nearly always committed in the name of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. The sparse leaders who object to these egregious violations are relegated to the position of silent bystanders, because they understand all too well the potential ramifications of publically expressing their loyalty to the laws of our country. These are strong words that I do not use lightly, but after years of clear personal observation I am certain that they are true. The following excerpt is from my official letter of resignation from West Point:
I do not wish to be in any way associated with an institution which willfully disregards the Constitution of the United States of America by enforcing policies which run counter to the same. Examples of these policies include mandatory prayer, the maintenance of the 3rd Regiment Shield, awarding extra passes to Plebes who take part in religious retreats and chapel choirs, as well as informal policies such as the open disrespect of non-religious new cadets and incentivizing participation in religious activities through the chain of command.
As the President of the West Point Secular Student Alliance (SSA), a Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers(MAAF) affiliate, and first Director of Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) Affairs at West Point, I have been in a position to hear countless cadets recount their personal stories of frustration in dealing with the ongoing oppressive and unconstitutional bigotry they face for being non-religious. Cadets often come to me to seek assistance, guidance and reassurance in response to instances of debasing harassment. Many here are regularly told they do not deserve a place in the military. They are shown through policy that the Constitution guarantees their freedom of, but not from religion. Many are publically chastised for seeking out a community of likeminded people because it is such a common belief that Humanism and other non-religious philosophies are inherently immoral and worse.
While dealing with the bureaucracy of the academy I have had my complaints ignored by several members of my direct military chain of command. The ranking chaplain here responded to some of these instances of clear prejudice with the useless statement that he will “do what [he] can in good conscience” (which was nothing) instead of fulfilling his legal obligations. In dealing with the Directorate of Cadet Activities I have seen the Secular Student Alliance denied recognition for two years because the former director of the organization did not see a reason to recognize an organization for support of nonreligious West Point cadets. Even after finally receiving hard-fought recognition this year, that same organization continues to work with us only half-heartedly. They have only begrudgingly given us a pitifully inadequate budget, continue to refuse to list us on their website, and one of their staff has openly laughed at the idea that we could organize a conference or even produce club t-shirts for our members.
In response to this utter nonsense, and much more, I initiated an Equal Opportunity investigation earlier this semester. I have received nothing but positive responses from the chain of command since then. The Commandant of Cadets himself, Brigadier General Theodore Martin, expressed what I perceived to be a sincere desire to see to it that these issues are dealt with quickly and severely. As happy as I was to hear his words and see his genuine concern expressed, his influence alone will not be enough to change the confidently bigoted culture of this sad place. The gulf between the intent of a General Officer and the execution of that intent by those in positions of immediate authority is massive in a complex bureaucracy entrenched in over 200 years of tradition. This chasm is widened by the rarity of people like General Martin who are willing to take on a proactive role in attempting to ensure that equality is established. The existence of decades of legal precedent and policies prohibiting this pervasive religious bigotry has not stopped it from happening in the past, and will most certainly not stop it from happening in the future so long as the many who oppose it remain too timid to stand up and be counted. I am making this stand in the hope that others will follow by whatever means they must. Perhaps now some of the 136 cadets, faculty and staff at West Point that are represented by the MRFF may find the courage to make themselves heard.
Although I have decided that I do not wish to be a part of the Long Gray Line, there are many other bright young men and women who will remain here and continue the work I started. Their efforts, combined with support from Jason Torpy andMAAF, Mikey Weinstein and the MRFF, Lyz Liddell and the rest of the wonderful staff of SSA national, and many other organizations will ultimately lead to the development of a flourishing community of support for non-religious cadets at West Point. It is pathetic that so many leaders in the military are comfortable with both subtly and brutally discriminating against non-religious members. Perhaps with enough external pressure brought to bear by continued civil rights activism, America’s military leadership will one day soon be forced to realize that non-religious soldiers are not enemies of the state to be shunned, ridiculed and marginalized, but rather patriotic, honorable Americans to be respected as equals.
Blake Page – Cadet, United States Military Academy at West Point.