Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Atheist Soldier Sues Army for "Unconstitutional" Discrimination

Fortunately, my approximately three years of being an "out-of-the-closet" atheist have not been marred by any serious discrimination. I imagine I have my friends and the college in which I'm enrolled to thank for that. However, this has not made me blind to the plight some American atheists face today. Major news media often don't widely report stories such as the one to follow. Whether that's due to the stigma still attached to the word "atheist," or maybe that these stories really don't happen that often, I cannot say. Either way, I think stories like this deserve more attention.

In March of this year, U.S. Army Spc. Jeremy Hall filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Dept. of Defense, citing violations to his right to freedom from religion made by the U.S. Army.

"Hall (who was raised Baptist) served two tours of duty in Iraq and has a near perfect record. But somewhere between the tours, something changed. Hall, now 23, said he no longer believes in God, fate, luck or anything supernatural."

"His sudden lack of faith, he said, cost him his military career and put his life at risk. Hall said his life was threatened by other troops and the military assigned a full-time bodyguard to protect him out of fear for his safety."

"Two years ago on Thanksgiving Day, after refusing to pray at his table, Hall said he was told to go sit somewhere else. In another incident, when he was nearly killed during an attack on his Humvee, he said another soldier asked him, 'Do you believe in Jesus now?'"

"Hall also said he missed out on promotions because he is an atheist.
'I was told because I can't put my personal beliefs aside and pray with troops I wouldn't make a good leader,' Hall said."

"Hall isn't seeking compensation in his lawsuit -- just the guarantee of religious freedom in the military. Eventually, Hall was sent home early from Iraq and later returned to Fort Riley in Junction City, Kansas, to complete his tour of duty."

A representative from the Pentagon, Deputy Undersecretary Bill Carr, claims complaints of evangelizing are "relatively rare," and that it is not the business of the Pentagon to push a particular faith among the troops.

"'If an atheist chose to follow their convictions, absolutely that's acceptable,' said Carr. 'And that's a point of religious accommodation in department policy, one may hold whatever faith, or may hold no faith.'"

Michael Weinstein, a retired senior Air Force officer and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation who is suing along with Hall, cites Christian groups that have filmed advertisements inside the Pentagon and have representatives on the majority of U.S. Army bases worldwide as evidence the the Army is pushing a Christian agenda. The Army officials who were involved with filming the advertisement inside the Pentagon have since been reprimanded.

"'Proselytizing or advancing a religious conviction is not what the nation would have us do and it's not what the military does,' Carr said."

Honestly, I don't know how to feel about Hall's lawsuit. It's obvious that since the majority of Americans are Christian, the majority of the U.S. Army is going to hold similar beliefs. Some of the comments Hall claims were made to him were in extremely bad taste, but Army leaders can't be everywhere at once. If Hall truly was denied promotion because he wouldn't be able to pray with his troops, that is clearly unconstitutional. Judging atheists based on their lack of beliefs is the root from which the majority of discrimination against them springs. I think Hall deserves respect for not asking for monetary compensation in his lawsuit. If there's anything the Dept. of Defense doesn't need more of, it's spending taxpayers' dollars.

However this lawsuit turns out, I hope at least one thing happens: if this unconstitutional discrimination against non-believers in the U.S. Army is as rampant as Hall and Weinstein claim, I hope this lawsuit will inspire similarly discriminated-against atheist and agnostic soldiers to make their voices heard.

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