John Milburn
Government and military affairs writer
The Associated Press

September 18, 2007

FORT RILEY, Kan. (AP) _ A soldier who unsuccessfully tried to hold a meeting for atheists and other non-Christians is suing the Defense Department, claiming his right to religious freedom was violated.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Kansas City, Kan., alleges a pattern of practices that discriminate against non-Christians in the military. It was filed Monday, the 220th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. It names Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Maj. Paul Welborne.

According to the filing, Spec. Jeremy Hall, a soldier assigned to Fort Riley's 97th Military Police Battalion, received permission to distribute flyers around his base in Iraq for a meeting of atheists and non-Christians. When he tried to convene the meeting, Hall claims, Welborne stepped in, threatening to file military charges against Hall and block his reenlistment.

Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said it is the first of many to come.

"We're going to expose the pernicious practice and pattern of these massive violations of the Constitution," Weinstein said. "That we had to go to this extent is just a heinous disgrace that defies any possible explanation."

Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a spokesman for the Defense Department, said he wasn't aware of the lawsuit but that the military places a "high value" on the right of military personnel to practice their faith.

"It is DoD policy that requests for accommodation of religious practices should be approved by commanders when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards or discipline," Withington said.

The lawsuit claims Hall was forced to "submit to a religious test as a qualification to his post as a soldier." Hall and the foundation are asking the court to block Welborne from establishing "compulsory religious practices" and order Gates to prevent Welborne from interfering with Hall's free speech rights.

Since its founding in 2005, the foundation has received nearly 6,000 calls from men and women in the military raising concerns about violations of religious freedom, Weinstein said. Most of the calls, he said, were Christians concerned about coercion from superior officers trying to push their beliefs.

"We're trying to prevent the chain of command from going all the way to the West Wing to making diminutive fundamental Christianity be the foreign and domestic policy of the United States," he said.

Weinstein and his youngest son, Curtis, claim to have encountered anti-Semitism as Jewish cadets at the Air Force Academy. They have written a book, "With God on Our Side," about the issue.

A federal judge in Colorado dismissed a lawsuit in 2006 by Weinstein and four other Air Force Academy graduates who claimed that particular religious views were being pushed on cadets.

Last year, Weinstein threatened to file a lawsuit over what he and others called "anti-Semitic" Bible studies posted by the Fort Leavenworth Command Chaplain's Web site. The documents, which were first posted in 1999, were removed after complaints were raised by Weinstein's foundation.

Separately, seven Army and Air Force officers, including four generals, face possible disciplinary action for violating ethics rules by assisting a Christian group in the production of a fundraising video. A Pentagon inspector general's report released earlier this month found the officers were interviewed in uniform and "in official and often identifiable Pentagon locations."

The video was for the evangelical group Christian Embassy. The report found that none of the officers received approval from superiors to participate in video interviews in an official capacity or in uniform.

Air Force and Army officials are reviewing that report.

 

The case is No. cv-02444 is Military Religious Freedom Foundation and Spec. Jeremy Hall v. U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Maj. Paul Welborne.

On the Net:

Department of Defense: http://www.defenselink.mil

Military Religious Freedom Foundation: http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org

Fort Riley: http://www.riley.army.mil