Jason Leopold / t r u t h o u t | Report – 2007-09-19 22:54:42
(September 18, 2007) – A military watchdog organization filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and a US Army major, on behalf of an Army soldier stationed in Iraq. The suit charges the Pentagon with widespread constitutional violations by allegedly trying to force the soldier to embrace evangelical Christianity and then retaliating against him when he refused.
The complaint, filed in US District Court in Kansas City, by the nonprofit Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), on behalf of Jeremy Hall, an Army specialist currently on active duty in Speicher, Iraq, alleges that Hall’s First Amendment rights were violated beginning last Thanksgiving when, because of his atheist beliefs, he declined to participate in a Christian prayer ceremony commemorating the holiday.
“Immediately after plaintiff made it known he would decline to join hands and pray, he was confronted, in the presence of other military personnel, by the senior ranking … staff sergeant who asked plaintiff why he did not want to pray, whereupon plaintiff explained because he is an atheist,” says the lawsuit, a copy of which was provided to Truthout.
“The staff sergeant asked plaintiff what an atheist is and plaintiff responded it meant that he (plaintiff) did not believe in God. This response caused the staff sergeant to tell plaintiff that he would have to sit elsewhere for the Thanksgiving dinner. Nonetheless, plaintiff sat at the table in silence and finished his meal.”
Moreover, the complaint alleges that on August 7, when Hall received permission by an Army chaplain to organize a meeting of other soldiers who shared his atheist beliefs, his supervisor, Army Major Paul Welborne, broke up the gathering and threatened to retaliate against the soldier by charging him with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The complaint also alleges that Welborne vowed to block Hall’s reenlistment in the Army if the atheist group continued to meet – a violation of Hall’s First Amendment rights under the Constitution. Welborne is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
“During the course of the meeting, defendant Welborne confronted the attendees, disrupted the meeting and interfered with plaintiff Hall’s and the other attendees’ rights to discuss topics of their interests,” the lawsuit alleges.
The complaint charges that Hall, who is based at Fort Riley, Kansas, has been forced to “submit to a religious test as a qualification to his post as a soldier in the United States Army,” a violation of Article VI, Clause 3 of the Constitution.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation said Defense Secretary Robert Gates is named as a defendant in the lawsuit because he has allowed the military to engage in “a pattern and practice of constitutionally impermissible promotions of religious beliefs within the Department of Defense and the United States military.”
The lawsuit seeks an injunction against Welborne from further engaging in behavior “that has the effect of establishing compulsory religious practices” and asks that Gates prevent Welborne from interfering with Hall’s free speech rights.
Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an organization that seeks to enforce the law mandating the separation between church and state in the US military, said the lawsuit would be the first of many his group intends to file against the Pentagon.
“This landmark federal litigation is just the first of a galaxy of new lawsuits that will be expeditiously filed against the Pentagon in a concentrated effort to preserve the precious religious liberties guaranteed by our beautiful United States Constitution,” Weinstein said Monday. “Today, we are boldly stabbing back against an unconstitutional heart of darkness, a contagion of fundamentalist religious supremacy and triumphalism noxiously dominating the command and control of the technologically most lethal organization ever created by humankind: our honorable and noble United States armed forces.”
A Pentagon spokesman said he could not comment on the lawsuit because he has not yet seen it.
Weinstein, a former White House attorney under Ronald Reagan, general counsel H. Ross Perot and an Air Force Judge Advocate (JAG), has been waging a one-man war against the Department of Defense for its blatant disregard of the Constitution. He published a book on his fight: “With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military.” Weinstein is also an Air Force veteran and a graduate of the Air Force Academy. Three generations of his family have attended US military academies.
Since he launched his watchdog organization nearly two years ago months ago, Weinstein said he has been contacted by more than 5,000 active duty and retired soldiers, many of whom served or serve in Iraq, who told Weinstein that they were pressured by their commanding officers to convert to Christianity.
The lawsuit also includes examples of other alleged constitutional abuses by Pentagon officials.
Last month, the Pentagon’s Inspector General responded to a complaint filed last year by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation alleging that Defense Department officials violated military regulations by appearing in a video promoting a fundamental Christian organization.
The Inspector General agreed and issued a 47-page report that was highly critical of senior Army and Air Force personnel for participating in the video while in uniform and on active duty.
The report recommended that Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack Catton, Army Brig. Gen. Bob Caslen, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, Maj. Gen. Peter Sutton, and a colonel and lieutenant colonel whose names were redacted in the inspector general’s report, “improperly endorsed and participated with a non-Federal entity while in uniform” and the men should be disciplined for misconduct.
Caslen was formerly the deputy director for political-military affairs for the war on terrorism, directorate for strategic plans and policy, joint staff. He now oversees the 4,200 cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point. Caslen told DOD investigators he agreed to appear in the video upon learning other senior Pentagon officials had been interviewed for the promotional video.
The inspector general’s report recommended the “Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Army take appropriate corrective action with respect to the military officers concerned.”
The Army generals who appeared in the video appeared to be speaking on behalf of the military, but they did not obtain prior permission to appear in the video. They defended their actions, according to the inspector general’s report, saying the “Christian Embassy had become a ‘quasi-Federal entity,’ since the DOD had endorsed the organization to General Officers for over 25 years.”
Jason Leopold is senior editor and reporter for Truthout. He received a Project Censored award in 2007 for his story on Halliburton’s work in Iran.