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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

ACLU and Cemetery Crosses

Q: Is the ACLU suing to have cross-shaped headstones removed from military cemeteries?

A: The ACLU has filed no such suit, and it hasn’t sued to "end prayer from the military" either.


Is this true?


Did you know that the ACLU has filed a suit to have all military cross-shaped headstones removed and another suit to end prayer from the military completely…

They’re making great progress. The Navy Chaplains can no longer mention Jesus’ name in prayer thanks to the retched ACLU and our new administration.

I’m not breaking this one. If I get it a 1000 times, I’ll forward it a 1000 times!

Let us pray… Prayer chain for our Military… Don’t break it!

Please send this on after a short prayer.. Prayer for our soldiers Don’t break it!


‘Lord, hold our troops in your loving hands Protect them as they protect us Bless them and their families for the selfless acts they perform for us in our time of need. Amen.’

Prayer Request: When you receive this, please stop for a moment and say a prayer for our troops around the world.

There is nothing attached. Just send this to people in your address book. Do not let it stop with you. Of all the gifts you could give a Marine, Soldier, Sailor, Airman, & others deployed in harm’s way, prayer is the very best one.



The claim that the American Civil Liberties Union sued to have crosses removed from military cemeteries is a false one that first circulated six years ago. It has taken on new life in this version, which also accuses "the new administration" of teaming with the "retched [sic] ACLU" to prevent Navy chaplains from mentioning the name of Jesus in prayer. And it claims the ACLU is suing to prevent prayer in the military altogether.

But if the author of this message is really a committed Christian, he or she might profit from a review of the biblical Commandment against bearing false witness. This message violates it repeatedly.

No End to Headstone Crosses

It’s true that various groups have in the past sued to prevent state or federal governments from erecting religious monuments on public property. In 2001, for example, the ACLU of Southern California sued for removal of the Mojave Desert Cross at Sunrise Rock, which stood on land that had become part of a national preserve run by the National Park Service. That long and tangled legal battle continues and is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. (Update, April 28, 2010: The high court later ruled against the ACLU in that case, allowing the cross to stand. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote: "The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement [of religion] does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.")

But the ACLU says it has never sued to remove religious symbols from headstones in military cemeteries and never would. It says that would be contrary to its support for the First Amendment’s guarantee of free religious expression. According to the Frequently Asked Questions page on the ACLU’s Web site:

ACLU: Personal gravestones are the choice of the family members, not the choice of the government. The ACLU vigorously defends peoples’ freedom to choose the religious symbols of their choice. The right of each and every American to practice his or her own religion, or no religion at all, is among the most fundamental of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

And, in fact, the ACLU has sued – not to force removal of crosses – but to force the government to add the Wiccan pentacle to the list of 38 religious symbols allowed on headstones by the National Cemeteries Administration of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Wicca is a religion often described as a modern version of paganism or witchcraft. At the time the suit was filed in 2006, ACLU lawyer Aaron Caplan said:

ACLU’s Caplan: The government has no business picking and choosing which personal religious beliefs may be expressed. All veterans, regardless of their religion, deserve to have their faith recognized on an equal basis.

In 2007 the government settled the case by agreeing to the ACLU’s demands, and promptly produced the first five Wiccan headstones and shipped two of them to Arlington National Cemetery on April 27, 2007, according to minutes of the Advisory Committee on Cemeteries and Memorials.

No End to Prayer

The claim that the ACLU sued to "end prayer from the military completely" is also false.

It’s true that last year the ACLU of Maryland asked the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis to end mandatory prayer. It sent a letter challenging the Navy’s long-standing policy of forcing midshipmen to participate in the academy’s compulsory "noon meal prayers." The ACLU did not file any lawsuit, however. And just as important, the group’s legal director, Deborah A. Jeon, stated in a May 28, 2008, letter to the academy’s superintendent that the ACLU had no objection to military prayer as such:

ACLU’s Jeon: [T]his request is not motivated by any hostility to voluntary religious exercises by Academy midshipmen, nor do we fail to recognize the important place religious faith holds among many in the military. Indeed, the ACLU has long defended the fundamental right of religious communities, families and individuals – including those in the armed services – to practice their faith freely and openly.

So the ACLU didn’t sue and doesn’t want to "end prayer from the military completely." Rather, the ACLU supports the right of those in uniform to pray or not as they please.

Praying in Jesus’ Name

Also false is the e-mail’s claim that "[t]he Navy Chaplains can no longer mention Jesus’ name in prayer thanks to the retched [sic] ACLU and our new administration."

Later versions of this e-mail corrected the misspelling of "wretched" but still mangled the facts about the case of former Navy Chaplain Gordon J. Klingenschmitt, to which the message likely alludes. A favorite of religious conservatives, Klingenschmitt accused his Navy superiors of pushing chaplains to offer generic, nonsectarian prayers. On his Web site, where he now solicits donations, news interviews and speaking engagements, he describes himself as "The Navy Chaplain who dared to pray ‘in Jesus’ name’ " and says he was "court-martialed for praying in Jesus’ name in uniform outside the White House." He accuses the Navy of "anti-Jesus persecution of chaplains."

Actually, the Navy court-martialed Klingenschmitt for disobeying an order. He appeared – in uniform – with others at a news conference to protest the president’s inaction on his complaints against the Navy. The event was in Lafayette Square, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Klingenschmitt said he was merely offering a public prayer. The military prosecutor said Klingenschmitt had been ordered not to wear his uniform at media events or political protests, and that the event was not a true worship service. A jury of five officers found him guilty of disobeying a lawful order and punished him with a reprimand and temporary reduction in pay. He left the Navy soon after.

Regardless of the merits or demerits of Klingenschmitt’s case, the ACLU had nothing to do with it. ACLU spokesman Will Matthews told us in an exchange of e-mails that "the ACLU was never involved in the case of Gordon Klingenschmitt." In our research we’ve uncovered no news accounts that describe any role by the ACLU.

Furthermore, Klingenschmitt’s removal from the Navy was not the doing of "the new administration," as this e-mail claims. Klingenschmitt’s court-martial took place in 2006. The president who was in the White House, and whose support Klingenschmitt unsuccessfully sought, was George W. Bush.

-Brooks Jackson


ACLU of Southern California. “ACLU Sues Federal Government Over Desert Cross.” press release. 30 Jun 2009.

Salazar v. Buono, 08-472, U.S. Supreme Court Case Summary & Oral Argument.” Oyez.org Web site. 30 Jun 2009.

U.S. Supreme Court “Docket for 08-472.” Accessed 30 Jun 2009.

American Civil Liberties Union. "ACLU Calls For End To Mandatory Prayer At U.S. Naval Academy.” press release. 6 Jun 2008.

Jeon, Deborah. Letter to Vice Admiral Jeffrey L. Fowler. 2 May 2008.

Cooperman, Alan. “Navy Chaplain Guilty Of Disobeying an Order.” Washington Post. 15 Sep 2006.