Enemies, Domestic: Soldier Sues Army for Violating His Right to Religious Freedom

When a soldier enlists in the Army, he or she takes an oath:

"I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."

For SPC Jeremy Hall, a soldier currently stationed in Iraq, defending the Constitution involves more than his Army service. It also involves protecting his own Constitutional rights from people who don't think someone should be allowed to talk about being an atheist anywhere near a foxhole. Some of those deployed with him, including an officer, have responded to his decision to not be religious with threats and intimidation. It didn't work. Hall wants his rights, and he's not backing down. On Tuesday, he filed a federal lawsuit against the United States Department of Defense, the Secretary of Defense, and the officer who tried to intimidate him.

I mentioned SPC Hall's situation back in August, but I didn't have a lot of information at the time, so the post was a bit vague. There's quite a bit more information available now, including the complaint itself. The allegations raised in the complaint are absolutely outrageous, clearly unconstitutional, and, based on what I saw over the course of six years living on base, totally believable.

From the complaint:

On August 7, 2007, plaintiff Hall attempted to conduct and participate in a meeting of individuals who consider themselves atheists, freethinkers, or adherents to non-Christian religions. With permission from an army chaplain, plaintiff Hall posted flyers around COB Speicher [an Army base located near Tikrit, Iraq] announcing the meeting. The meeting attendees included plaintiff Hall, other military personnel and nonmilitary personnel.

During the course of the meeting, defendant Welborne confronted the attendees, disrupted the meeting and interfered with the plaintiff Hall's and the other attendees' rights to discuss topics of their interests. During the confrontation, and because of plaintiff's actions in organizing the meeting, defendant Welborne threatened plaintiff Hall with an action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and further threatened to prevent plaintiff Hall's reenlistment in the United States Army.

As insane as it sounds, there's nothing about this episode that strikes me as unbelievable. There are a lot of Evangelical officers in the Army, and many of them are very, very vocal about their faith - and equally vocal about their opposition to anything outside their faith. They are determined, as some very senior officers admitted during a video that they participated in for a Christian group, to spread their version of Christianity through the military. Those in power have done nothing to stop them - no surprise, really, since the Secretary of the Army participated in that same Christian video.

That's changing, and you can help. SPC Hall is joined in his lawsuit by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. This group, founded by Mikey Weinstein, has been working hard to fight to keep religious freedom alive in the military. It hasn't been an easy battle, and it's not likely to get easier any time soon. If you think that it's good that there are people fighting to keep America a secular state, please think about making a contribution to help them do just that.

ps: For those of you who might be wondering which law firm has taken the lead on this case, it turns out that it's someone those of you who follow the creation-evolution issue have probably heard of. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation and SPC Hall are being represented by the law firm of Pedro Irigonegaray. Pedro was the lawyer who did such a great job of cross-examinating creationists during the infamous Kansas Kangaroo Kourt of 2005.

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Yeah, I'm having a brain problem today. It's fixed, thanks. (And sorry, Mikey.)

Here is what I don't understand. If Hall was an evangelical, and the meeting was for a Bible study, and some atheist objected to the flyers, wouldn't you be standing up for the atheist?

If not, why not?

If you would, why then are you not standing up for the rights of the evangelicals?

By Nobody In Particular (not verified) on 19 Sep 2007 #permalink

Here is what I don't understand. If Hall was an evangelical, and the meeting was for a Bible study, and some atheist objected to the flyers, wouldn't you be standing up for the atheist?

No, the athiest in that case (assuming all other particulars were identical) would be in the wrong. If athiests have the right to meet with other athiests, then theists have the right to meet with other theists. So long as the theist or atheist followed regulations regarding the hosting of a meeting, any person attempting to disrupt that meeting is clearly violating the civil rights of the attendees, regardless of creed of lack thereof.

Just because we may not agree with certain speech does not mean that we must deny it at all costs.

(Note: my personal views on religion are not for public consumption. My participation in this debate should not be construed as evidence for any religious beliefs or lack thereof.)

As somebody who has worn Khaki and received his mobilisation papers in the past the pressure to believe was institutional in my part of our army, but it was gentile to the extreme. In fact it was rather like being swotted with a wet paper handkerchief.
It didn't excuse the assumption by those in command, but it was really not unpleasant. Unfortunately for US soldiers it does seem that those in command assume that they can dictate belief. All I have to say is that an awful lot of officers in the 1st World War were shot by their own troops and should anecdotal evidence count for anything it occurred in Indo China too.
My view is: if that officer wanted to place more emphasis on his next life as opposed to me and my colleagues life in the only existence I know we have for sure then he runs the same risk.

Here is what I don't understand. If Hall was an evangelical, and the meeting was for a Bible study, and some atheist objected to the flyers, wouldn't you be standing up for the atheist?

First, the problem wasn't that the major "objected to the flyers." The issue is that the guy went in, disrupted the meeting, and threatened junior enlisted participants who were engaged in the legitimate exercise of their right to religious freedom.

Second, to answer your question, no, I would not be standing up for the atheist given your hypothetical. The (alleged) actions of the officer were completely reprehensible. They would be equally reprehensible if he was an atheist and the soldiers evangelical. They would, for that matter, be equally reprehensible if he was a follower of Loki who had disrupted a meeting of Isis-worshipers. There is absolutely no excuse for anyone to interfere with people who are exercising their legitimate 1st Amendment rights. This is especially true when you are a field-grade officer and the people you are messing with are junior enlisted.

As a Canadian who worked in the Pentagon for four years, I found the presence of evangelical Christianity amongst the senior serving and retired officers very eye-opening. It always seemed just below the surface and would break through occasionally during speeches at social gatherings. Prayer meetings were omnipresent and openly advertised but discreetly behind closed doors. I never felt shunned or confronted as an atheist, but coming from a culture where religious belief is much more private, I found the climate uncomfortable and verging on unprofessional. I always wondered how their apparently fervently held beliefs were affecting their decisions, especially after I heard one of our senior advisors, a retired senior officer, appearing regularly as a commentator on a fundamentalist Christian radio network.

"Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before ...."

Psychotics with guns and bombs, oh my!

By Watt de Fawke (not verified) on 20 Sep 2007 #permalink

So. What about the "So help me God" part of the oath?

It is optional. That is why you see "swear (affirm)" in printed versions of the oath.

By Ferrous Patella (not verified) on 20 Sep 2007 #permalink

As ex-military (not Army - we floated), I have to say that I never saw any of this. At any new unit, the various groups would approach me, and in every case, when they learned I was atheist, they'd leave me alone. Officers in particular were VERY cut-dried in this matter. (No, this didn't stop us from having heated arguments about theistic superstition, but that was with INDIVIDUALS, not groups, and it wasn't from officer to enlisted. Rank tabs went over the side and we fought as proponents of our beliefs. After which, we'd go grab a pizza toghether)

I can think of at least two units where the same office space was made available to a prayer group and to a coven (different nights, of course).

So.. where am I going with this?

Yes, the US tends to be more open about personal religion than most countries. It's a cultural thing. I don't like Kraft Dinners. It's a cultural thing.

As believable, and egregious, as this officer's actions are, I don't think for one minute it's the way the majority of officers in our military would behave, or even condone.