This story was updated on Sunday, Nov. 23, 2008.
The U.S. Army has been subjecting soldiers to fundamentalist Christian prayer ceremonies against their will during mandatory military events in violation of their basic constitutional rights, according to a new lawsuit filed against Secretary of Defense Robert Gates by a U.S. Army soldier.
On at least three occasions beginning in December 2007, Army Spc. Dustin Chalker claims he was directed to attend military events, one of which was a barbecue, where an Army battalion chaplain led a Christian prayer ceremony for military personnel. Chalker, who said he is an atheist, asked his superiors for permission to leave the prayer sessions and on each occasion his request to be excused was denied, according to the lawsuit.
Despite Chalker’s objections to being subjected to fundamentalist Christian prayer sessions, his Army superiors continuously forced him to attend other military events where the prayer ceremonies continued.
“The requirement for plaintiff Dustin Chalker to attend military functions and formations where sectarian Christian prayers are delivered is evidence of a pattern and practice of constitutionally impermissible promotions of religious beliefs within the Department of Defense and the United States Army,” the lawsuit says. Chalker is stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas.
“Plaintiff Chalker is an atheist and as such does not voluntarily participate in religious services, ceremonies or rituals that are conducted either on and around Fort Riley other military installations to which he is assigned. Plaintiff Chalker has sought relief from mandatory attendance at the subject functions/formations through his chain of command and the equal opportunity process. Neither have yielded satisfactory results.”
The government watchdog group The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Mikey Weinstein, the founder and president of MRFF, said “the purpose of the lawsuit is to make it clear to the Pentagon that “Jesus’ will” is not an acceptable American military policy,” Weinstein said.
“This historic litigation we have filed today will incontrovertibly demonstrate a pervasive and pernicious pattern and practice of unconstitutional religious discrimination,” he said. MRFF has leveled a blow in Federal Court against the unlawful religious bigotry and persecution that is sadly systemic in today’s armed forces.”
The lawsuit asks a federal court to grant an injunction to prevent Christian prayers from being delivered at mandatory military events. In his complaint, Chalker’s states his atheism has not resulted in “diminished performance” of his duties or compromised his ability to take commands.
Weinstein, a former White House attorney under Ronald Reagan, general counsel H. Ross Perot and an Air Force Judge Advocate (JAG), is credited with exposing what appears to be widespread constitutional violations by military officials involving proselytizing among active-duty soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since he launched his watchdog organization more than three years ago, Weinstein said he has been contacted by nearly 9,000 active duty and retired soldiers, many of whom served or serve in Iraq, claiming that they were pressured by their commanding officers to convert to Christianity.
Chalker, 23, who has served in Iraq and Korea since February 2002 and was awarded a Purple Heart and a Combat Medic Badge, is the second Fort Riley solider to file a lawsuit against Gates alleging civil rights violations.
Spc. Jeremy Hall, who is also an atheist, sued the defense secretary and his supervising officer last year for allegedly trying to force him to embrace fundamentalist Christianity and then retaliating against him when he refused. That lawsuit was amended in March. MRFF is also listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The case is still pending in federal court.
Hall’s decision to become a plaintiff with MRFF in a lawsuit against the Pentagon has had repercussions. Last September, while Hall was still stationed in Iraq, he said other U.S. soldiers physically threatened him after word spread that he and MRFF sued the Pentagon and the secretary of defense. On popular military related blogs, such as military.com, individuals who claimed they were active-duty soldiers posted comments threatening Hall with “fragging,” a term used by the military in which an unpopular soldier could be killed by intentional friendly fire during combat. The comment received widespread attention on blogs and in November Hall was transferred from Combat Operations Base Speicher to Fort Riley, Kansas.
Recently, officials with The California Council of Churches IMPACT (CCCI), one of the country’s largest Christian organizations, consisting of 21 denominations representing 5500 congregations and 1.5 million members within the mainstream, progressive Protestant community, said they intended to file a “friend of the court” legal brief in support of MRFF and Hall’s lawsuit.
“Our alignment with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is on behalf of religious freedom for all people, regardless of belief or non-belief,” said CCCI Board President Rev. John Freesemann. “It is not the function of the U.S. military to proselytize our troops but to protect our constitutional freedoms.”
CCCI’s endorsement of MRFF’s lawsuit is significant, Weinstein said, in that it marks the very first time that a major Christian organization has agreed to lend its support to the military watchdog’s efforts.
“Our basic mission is not at all about waging a war against Christianity; rather it is about upholding the foundational laws outlined in Clause 3, Article 6 of the United States Constitution (specific prohibition of a “religious test”) and the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights (establishing a wall of separation between church and state),” Weinstein said. “Without that clear wall of separation of church and state in the U.S. military, continued unconstitutional violations recklessly embolden terrorist extremists by sending an unmistakable message that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are really about Christianity versus Islam; essentially a modern day Crusade.”
To support claims that the military permits a “pattern and practice of constitutionally impermissible promotions of religious beliefs within the Department of Defense and the United States Army” Chalker and MRFF included more than a dozens of examples in their lawsuit, such as dipping the American flag before the altar at the chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md, which, as a result of complaints by MRFF, has been suspended.
Additionally, a Pentagon’s inspector general report released in August 2007, based on a complaint filed in 2006 by MRFF, concluded that Defense Department officials violated military regulations by appearing in a video promoting a fundamental Christian organization.
The 47-page report 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 U.S. 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.”
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