Can't order sailor to doff hat at prayer, court rules

There may be no atheists in foxholes, as a U.S. Army chaplain said in a famous Second World War field sermon.

But there are sailors in the Canadian military who are prepared to confront death without belief in God, and the Canadian Forces has been ordered to change its regulations to accommodate them.

In a precedent-setting decision forcing the military to reassess its procedures, the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada also set aside the conviction of Lieutenant (N)Darryl Scott for refusing to obey a lawful order.

Lt. (N) Scott, who joined the military in 1978, had been court-martialled for refusing to take off his hat while the unit's chaplain recited a prayer during a military parade at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt.

"Obedience to lawful orders is essential to maintaining necessary discipline in the military. Here, however, there was no clearly military purpose," the court ruled.

The order required Lt. (N) Scott to make a public gesture of approval for a religious ceremony in which he did not believe, the three-judge panel stated. "The order was not lawful, and [Lt. (N) Scott's] disobedience of it was justified."

The Canadian Forces allows those whose religious beliefs require head coverings to keep their head covered during prayers. However, the regulations make no provision for those who reject religion.

The event on Nov. 28, 2002, was the first time in more than a decade that Lt. (N) Scott, 51, had been required to participate in a parade.

Lt. (N) Scott anticipated having a problem when he would be required to remove his cap during prayer. He told his superior officer more than a month before the parade but was ordered to attend and remove his headgear when ordered.

"I thought it was not quite right," Lt. (N) Scott said in an interview. "It was around the time people were talking about the 20th anniversary of the Constitution and religious freedom."

Lt. (N) Scott, who is married and has two children, said he broke from religion in his early teens. The military court called him an atheist. "I'm more an agnostic, with atheist tendencies. I have not found any convincing proof," he said.

Lt. (N) Scott worked on ships deployed to Europe and Asia for more than a decade before specializing in computer work in the early 1990s. He recalled being deployed in harm's way during the Cold War.

But he does not agree with U.S. Army chaplain William Thomas Cummings, who said there were no atheists in foxholes.

"You are there as a unit. It has nothing to do with religion," Lt. he said. Sailors think about their close relationship with their shipmates, who they are willing to die for, not about religion, he said. "Religion is not relevant."

In light of the appeal court decision, the military is reassessing its manuals for drills and ceremonies, said Major Laurie Kannegiesser, a Canadian Forces media official in Ottawa. The military has not decided whether to appeal. The manuals will be changed to reflect the ruling if no appeal is launched, she said.