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Justice seeks dismissal of lawsuit
in Kan. alleging religious
discrimination in military

Friday, April 10, 2009

By John Hanna
Associated Press Writer

Government lawyers are seeking the dismissal of a federal lawsuit in Kansas alleging widespread religious discrimination within the military, arguing many of its claims are only "general grievances" and not wrongs against specific soldiers.

The Justice Department also contends a former Fort Riley soldier who joined the Military Religious Freedom Foundation in filing the lawsuit did not pursue his complaints aggressively enough with superiors first.

But Mikey Weinstein, president of the Albuquerque, N.M.-based foundation, said Friday that the government's response contains "nothing meritorious."

The lawsuit, filed last year in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., named Defense Secretary Robert Gates as the defendant. It alleges a pervasive bias within the military in favor of evangelical Christianity, even allowing its personnel to attempt to convert Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Justice Department attorneys filed their response Thursday, questioning whether the foundation has the legal standing to sue. The department also suggests the lawsuit attacks a tradition of religious observances within the military dating back to George Washington's army during the Revolutionary War.

As for a pattern of abuses, the government attorneys wrote, "These allegations are precisely the kind of generalized grievances that are routinely rejected by the federal courts."

Weinstein and two Topeka attorneys involved in the lawsuit said the government is wrong about the facts of the case and misinterpreting past court decisions. Weinstein also said the Justice Department is parroting some evangelical Christians' "revisionist" version of American history.

"I'm literally thunderstruck by its plethora of fatal flaws," Weinstein said of the government response. "I'd have expected better from a junior high civics class."

The other plaintiff is Spc. Dustin Chalker, a combat medic previously stationed at Fort Riley and now at Fort Detrick, Md.

Chalker is an atheist whose original complaints included being forced to attend military formations where Christian prayers were given.

Justice Department attorneys said there's no evidence Chalker asked to be excused from the formations, something they said the military allows. Also, the government lawyers said, he didn't exhaust his remedies within the military, something courts require before allowing a lawsuit.

The Justice Department said the Army works to accommodate soldiers' beliefs, "But the command cannot be expected to remedy grievances that it is not made aware of."

Bob Eye, an attorney for Chalker and the foundation, said it's not clear the soldier had to exhaust internal remedies first. Both Eye and Weinstein also said Chalker did try to take his complaints to superiors — without result.

The lawsuit contains a long list of alleged abuses that don't involve Chalker directly. The suit argues the religious bias within the military pervades even the Army's suicide prevention manual and the Air Force's sponsorship of an evangelical motocross ministry.

But the Justice Department attorneys contend the allegations are "nebulous."

"In fact, plaintiffs allege no facts to establish that any particular soldier has been, or will be, subjected to these practices," they wrote. "Plaintiffs are left to assert that they are injured by the mere perception that such practices exist."

Eye said such allegations show that Chalker's experiences were not isolated.

Weinstein said the foundation represents 11,500 military personnel with such complaints, 96 percent of them Christians.

"This involves all of our clients," Weinstein said. "We have tons of evidence."


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