An atheist soldier sued Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday, alleging he was forced to participate in public prayers and the military systematically violates the religious freedoms of its personnel.
An atheist soldier sued Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday, alleging he was forced to participate in public prayers and the military systematically violates the religious freedoms of its personnel.Spc. Dustin Chalker, who has served in Korea and Iraq, is the second soldier at the northeast Kansas post to file such a lawsuit. The New Mexico-based Military Religious Freedom Foundation joined Chalker as a plaintiff in his lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan.Weinstein called the alleged violations of military personnel’s religious freedom “a rape of the Constitution. It’s at least as terrible as what we’re fighting overseas.”A spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division, which is headquartered at Fort Riley, referred questions to the Defense Department, where a spokeswoman was not available Thursday night and did not return a telephone message.An attorney for the U.S. Justice Department’s civil division, which is defending Gates and the Defense Department in an earlier lawsuit, did not respond Thursday night to telephone and e-mail messages.The earlier lawsuit, which is still pending in federal court, was filed by the foundation and Pfc. Jeremy Hall, another atheist at Fort Riley. It alleges harassment of Hall by fellow soldiers in Iraq and after he returned late last year to military police duty and that his promotion to sergeant was blocked.The post and the Army have said they don’t condone discrimination, and the Justice Department has argued the military has adequate policies for dealing with complaints.Both lawsuits allege the military permits religious discrimination by fundamentalist Christians who try to force their views on others, especially subordinates. Chalker’s lawsuit lists 18 examples, including programs for soldiers, the decor of military chapels and presentations by “anti-Muslim activists” at service academies.Chalker’s lawsuit also cites a “spiritual handbook” for soldiers carrying the endorsement of Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. The lawsuit alleges the book promotes Christianity and denigrates nonbelievers. Petraeus is not named as a defendant.Chalker, 23, of Mobile, Ala., joined the Army Reserve in 2002 while still in high school. He went on active duty in 2004 and is a combat medic in an engineering battalion that helps train engineers at Fort Riley.He served a year in South Korea and served 15 months in Iraq, starting in September 2006, and there he suffered multiple concussions. He’s received the Purple Heart and the Combat Medic Badge, awarded to medics who serve under fire.In the lawsuit, Chalker says he was required to attend one function last year and two this year in which sectarian Christian prayers were delivered.“It’s always a fundamentalist Christian prayer that involves Jesus,” Weinstein said. “It’s just the camel’s nose under the tent.”Weinstein said soldiers face “a pervasive and pernicious pattern and practice” of discrimination.Chalker’s lawsuit said the pattern includes:— A “spiritual fitness” program for hundreds of personnel at an Air Force base in England, in which suicide prevention efforts were based on Christian teachings and, the lawsuit alleged, creationism was promoted.— A weekly “Free Day Away” for soldiers in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., since 1971. Weinstein’s group and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have questioned the program, but it has been described as voluntary and has since been modified to make clear it’s sponsored by a Baptist Church.— A once-suspended practice of dipping the American flag before the altar at the chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.— Participation by a major general in uniform in a Fourth of July television special for the Christian singer Carmen.Weinstein called the lawsuit a “telling blow” against “fundamentalist Christian religious bigotry and persecution that is comprehensively systemic in today’s United States armed forces.”“There’s a lot of shocking stuff,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve put it all together.”———On the Net:U.S. District Court for Kansas: http://www.ksd.uscourts.gov/Military Religious Freedom Foundation: http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.orgFort Riley: http://www.riley.army.milDepartment of Defense: http://www.defenselink.mil