Army troops were not compelled to participate in a religious service in which a commanding officer led his unit in prayers and asked them to “dedicate ourselves” to “the honour and service of God”, the Defence Personnel minister’s office has said.
In a letter to the Rationalist Society of Australia (see letter below), Matt Keogh’s chief of staff Catherine Bergin said members of the 1st Armoured Regiment attended the Adelaide church service in accordance with standing military regulations
“Active participation in the religious component was voluntary; Army does not mandate or compel participation in religious activities,” she wrote.
In July, the RSA reported on how a number of male priests led Army personnel from 1st Armoured Regiment through the streets before attending a Christian church service as part of a ceremony marking the transfer of the unit’s banners, known as Regimental Colours, from Darwin to Adelaide.
During the church service, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Henderson recited prayers and asked Army personnel to take part.
“We come together before God to ask his blessing on these devices which represent to us our duty towards our sovereign and our country. May these devices be a sign to all of us that God is with us always – in danger and in difficulties. May they increase our faith and hope in Him, who is king of kings and lord of lords,” he said.
In a letter to the Defence ministers (see letter below), RSA president Dr Meredith Doig noted that section 123B of the Defence Act 1903 (Cth) prohibited any “order compel[ling] attendance at any religious service.”
She also asked whether personnel were required to participate and questioned whether it was appropriate for Defence Force ceremonies to be religious, and exclusively Christian, in nature.
Ms Bergin said the ceremony was conducted in accordance with Defence policy.
“Historically, ceremonies associated with Colours being laid up, moved or transferred, are conducted in buildings with a commensurate level of importance, such as churches and museums,” she said.
The RSA understands that individuals who wanted to be an escort to the colours but refused to participate in religious activities would have had no choice but to stand down and remove themselves from the event.
Non-religious personnel who conscientiously object to participating in such religious activities could be concerned about having to withdraw given that the Australian Army emphasises “working for the team” as a central part of its culture.
In an article in Rationale magazine early this month, former Army Colonel Phillip Hoglin argued that the religious nature of the event “ignored the fact that a majority of the regiment’s members are not Christian” and that people of other faith traditions likely serve in the unit.
Last year, the RSA raised concerns with Mr Keogh about the Christian-centric nature of Defence rites and traditions, and called for the government to review the content in military ceremonies to ensure they better reflect modern society.
In November, Mr Keogh’s office told the RSA that military commemorations such as Anzac Day services “remain welcoming to all” – despite the RSA pointing out all the Christian elements to Anzac Day services at the Australian War Memorial.
“Most military ceremonies are predominantly secular in content, with the inclusion of small portions of religious and cultural content dependent on the context, audience or supporting personnel,” a spokesperson said.
The Rationalist Society of Australia is actively lobbying and advocating for secular reform of the Defence Force. See the latest updates here.
Si Gladman is Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.
Image: Matt Keogh (Facebook)
Letter from office of Defence Personnel minister Matt Keogh, 7 August 2023
Dear Dr Doig,
Thank you for your correspondence of 14 July 2023 regarding Military ceremonies and services. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel, the Hon Matt Keogh MP, appreciates the time you have taken to bring this matter to his attention and has asked me to respond on his behalf.
The parade and church service conducted by the 1st Annoured Regiment in Adelaide on 8 July 2023 was the official transfer of the unit’s Regimental Colours (Colours) from their historical home in Darwin, to their new resting place in Adelaide.
The presentation of Colours is an honour to a unit. In modern times, they are no longer carried into battle but hold ceremonial significance and represent the unit during ceremonial parades and other moments of significance. Historically, ceremonies associated with Colours being laid up, moved or transferred, are conducted in buildings with a commensurate level of importance, such as churches and museums.
The ceremony was conducted in accordance with Defence policy. Members of the 1st Armoured Regiment attended as a place of parade in accordance with standing military regulations. Active participation in the religious component was voluntary; Army does not mandate or compel participation in religious activities.
Thank you for taking the time to write. I trust this information is of assistance.
Chief of Staff
Letter to Defence minister Richard Marles and Defence Personnel minister Matt Keogh, 14 July 2023
I write regarding the 1st Armoured Regiment’s parade and church service in Adelaide last week.
It was a street march led by clergy, finishing with a church service in which the Commanding Officer of the unit asked troops to dedicate themselves to God.
During the one-hour-plus church service at St Peter’s Cathedral (watch it here), the unit’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Henderson, led the troops in a prayer ritual that required them to “dedicate ourselves” to “the honour and service of God”.
During the service, the Commanding Officer also said:
- “We come together before God to ask his blessing on these devices which represent to us our duty towards our sovereign and our country”
- “May these devices be a sign to all of us that God is with us always – in danger and in difficulties. May they increase our faith and hope in Him, who is king of kings and lord of lords.”
I note that section 123B of the Defence Act 1903 (Cth) prohibits any “order compel[ling] attendance at any religious service.”
I also note that the majority of ADF personnel are not religious.
Can you please advise:
- Is it appropriate for ADF ceremonies like the 1st Armoured Regiment’s recent Adelaide ceremony to be religious, and exclusively Christian, in nature?
- Were members of the 1st Armoured Regiment required to participate in the march and church service?
- What processes does the Australian Army have in place to ensure there are no contraventions of section 123B of the Defence Act in relation to military ceremonies and services?
Dr Meredith Doig,
President, Rationalist Society of Australia