Is Atheism a Religion? 

If you’re an out atheist chances are you’ve probably had someone try to tell you that atheism is “a religion itself”. I know I’ve found myself on the receiving end of such claims, and my normal response is to point out that religions are almost always centered around the veneration and worship of a supernatural entity of some sort and therefore atheism is not a religion. I’ve generally been happy with that argument, but it turns out it’s not how the law sees it. Supernatural beliefs are not required to exist in a belief system for the courts to view said belief system as “religious”. My guess is the courts have probably avoided such a ruling because “supernatural” seems kinda judgy and nobody wants to tell their family and neighbors they worship something magical, so they’ve worked around it. Besides, how could you “prove” the supernatural in a court of law anyway? However, it seems we may have a new(ish) standard for what’s considered a religion from a legal standpoint.

The California Court of Appeals has ruled against Mr. Marshel Copple, seemingly the only follower of  “Sun Worshipping Atheism”, in his claim that he was discriminated against by the California Department of Corrections on the basis of his religious beliefs. (You can read the entire ruling here.) I won’t go into my opinion of Mr. Copple’s legal arguments or the relative validity of his beliefs, but I will say the entire scenario seems like one intended to challenge the veracity of the “religious belief” exclusions commonly found in the law. If this is the case the good on him. More folks should challenge those exclusions.

But back to the question at hand: is atheism a religion? Included in the ruling was a three part “test” for determining if a belief system is indeed a religion. (This test was originally introduced in Friedman v. Southern Cal. Permanente Medical Group  and the court in the Copple case relied heavily on it.) So, in order for a belief system to be considered a religion under the law it must meet these three requirements:

1. It must addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters.

2. It must be is comprehensive in nature; it must consist of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching.

3. It’s often recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.

So let’s apply this test to atheism. The first and third requirements seem to be met. The first requirement is pretty much guaranteed when it comes to atheism, since it does address the deep and imponderable matter of “Do deities exist?” This is one of the most basic questions ever pondered by humanity, one that has dogged us since before we could even truly articulate the question. Humanity has always attributed the unknowable to a deity, and a sub-set of humanity has always rejected those attributions (usually at their peril).

The third requirement is a little wobbly, if you ask me, since currently there are graphic artists graduating by the truckload and print shops on nearly every corner of any mid-sized city so formal and external signs seem easy to come by even if you don’t have a “belief system”. But of course atheism has these signs, which are generally recognized to the community, so I think we can say atheism meets the third requirement.

As far as the second requirement, since atheism isn’t a “system” in and of itself, and is isolated to the single question concerning the existence of deities I think we can say that no, atheism doesn’t meet the standard of a belief system and is indeed an isolated teaching.

So, there ya go folks. Legally, it seems, atheism is not a religion. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up. Of course, this does seem to mean that the legal system can continue to carve out special legal privileges for sincerely held religious belief systems and their followers while continuing to deny those privileges to atheists, especially when it comes to labor law, so maybe that’s not such a good thing. Maybe everyone should be held to the same standard Mr. Copple was: that nobody should take a job if the requirements of that job interfere with their sincerely held beliefs, and the law should not allow anyone to carve out exceptions to those job requirements based on those sincerely held beliefs. I’m certain there are more than few pharmacists in this country who wouldn’t be so happy if they were held to the same legal standard as Mr. Copple, and more than a few women (and the men who love them) who are unhappy they aren’t.



The Marriage Trap, Part 2

Recently members of the secular community here in Oklahoma, many of them our leaders, have been reminding us that they are ordained in the state, authorized to perform marriages as an ordained “minister” under Oklahoma law, and are willing to do so for non-believers. They, along with several churches and religious leaders, have been doing this in response to recent legislation and made it clear that they will perform marriage ceremonies for atheists in order to allow us the opportunity to comply with this bill.

I have three words for my leadership:




As I’ve mentioned before, a bill establishing new restrictions on how marriages are licensed in Oklahoma has been introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature. In its original form HB 1125 by Rep. Todd Russ gave the authority to issue marriage licenses exclusively to ordained pastors, ministers, and other religious authority figures. But while the fact that the bill was subsequently amended to once again add judges to the list of folks allowed to issue marriage licenses, along with reports that the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, are positive signs that marriage won’t be restricted to the religious any time soon in Oklahoma, these reminders that there are secular officiants out there willing to perform pseudo-religious ceremonies for non-believers are not helpful in the fight against this abhorrent legislation. 


The State has no compelling public policy reason to limit marriage licenses to those undergoing religious ceremonies or that said marriages must be sanctioned by real or pretend religious leaders, and leaders in the secular community shouldn’t be giving tacit approval to this effort by announcing they are “ordained”. The impulse here is, I assume, to let us all know that non-believers can avoid this blatantly unconstitutional action by the State by participating in a quasi-religious ceremony officiated by a phony religious leader. But that’s the wrong impulse. Our leadership should be calling this action out for what it is: an egregious breach of the wall of separation between Church and State.


Look, I understand that there are lots of folks out there who’ve left their faith but want to keep the ceremonies, rites and events that came with that faith. There are others who like big parties or want the traditional ceremony without the religious talk. I think it is marvelous that there are people willing to perform those ceremonies, and I’ve recommended several of them to friends who want this service. My best friend is ordained to perform marriage ceremonies (and an atheist), and my own husband is halfway to being ordained as a Dudist Priest. It’s all wonderful so long as participation in such activity is a choice.

But the State is attempting to take away that choice. Making it easier for the State to do this and trying to divert the damage this legislation does by offering these services to the community should not be the actions of our leadership. I know people have their heart in the right place here; I believe they are trying to mitigate an ugly action by being positive. But seriously, stop. Just stop. 

I know we can all just go through the motions, pretending to uphold the spirit of the law while patting ourselves on the back about how we’ve fooled the powers that be and faked our way through their illegal requirements. But its phony, and nobody should be forced to fake their way through the most important and life-changing decision they will ever make. They certainly shouldn’t be forced to do so by the State.


Our leadership should be representing the best interests of the community, and in this case they’ve failed. They should be standing up to make it harder for the State to implement violations of the Constitution, not easier. Start fighting for the rights of the people to be free from government imposition of religious ceremonies in order to access civil rights and privileges. It’s what a leader would do.

EDIT:  It occurs to me that as a co-organizer of the Lawton Area Secular Society I should include myself in this failure. I did write a personal blog post about this legislation at the time it was introduced, but LASS should have issued a statement on it as well. That is my failure and I’ll own it. 


P.S. This bill was originally intended to prevent same-sex marriage equality by putting marriage exclusively in the hands of the Church. I guess the authors didn’t realize there are literally dozens and dozens of ministers in the state more than willing to perform marriages and issue marriage licenses for homosexual couples. If this bill passes it will actually have exactly the opposite outcome than the original intent. Legislating is hard when you only see the world from one viewpoint, isn’t it?

Do you, State, take this Church…

The latest session of the Oklahoma State Legislature will be banging it’s opening gavel on Feb 2, so it’s time to play “The Crazy Things That Have Been Introduced In The Oklahoma State Legislature!” again. I can’t believe it’s only been a year since we last played this game, time flies by so fast!

Our friend Damion over at Skeptic Ink has written a beautiful rundown of the trio of bad legislation Sally Kern has introduced. Unfortunately for all of us, one blog post is not nearly enough to cover all the amazingly dumb and offensive legislation typically introduced every year, so I thought I’d bring us all up to date on another winner.

My entry for the game comes from Representative Todd Russ. Representing Cordell as a Republican (and Assemblies of God minister, natch), Russ has blessed our great state by introducing HB 1125. This legislation makes churches the only source for marriage licenses and requiring church approval before someone can get legally married. For you sinners out there, you get to file something called an “affidavit of common law marriage”. Sexy, right?

According to an article by the Daily Oklahoman, Rep. Russ claims:

…House Bill 1125 an example of “conscience legislation,” meant to allow people to exercise their religious values in good conscience.

It seems he thinks this legislation is necessary to protect clergy from being forced (by that evil institution THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT) into performing marriage ceremonies for couples who don’t qualify as married people in their particular flavor of religious faith. (Which is totally happens, guys. Really. I mean, you can’t swing a cat in this state without hitting a preacher who was forced by G-Men to consecrate marriages involving non-maiden women, divorcees, non-tithers, heathens and demons.)

Well, actually the truth is  you can’t swing a cat in this state without hitting a preacher, but I don’t know how many of them have been persecuted by THE MAN into bastardizing their sacred rituals. Rep. Russ seems to think it’s a problem, and he’s a preacher, so I’ll assume it’s happened. Bunches.

But here’s the thing: common-law marriages are extremely legally tenuous. Most states (including Oklahoma) don’t officially, legally recognize them. There have been some court cases upholding the concept (those meddling courts are at it again folks!), but there are few to no codified legal protections for couples without marriage licenses, and any protections you may get only come from lengthy and costly court proceedings rather than the pretty easy process of presenting a VALID MARRIAGE LICENSE to the official, weather that official is the IRS, your insurance company, probate court, hospitals, prisons, etc. where proving you’re married to someone is necessary.

Also, the Oklahoma marriage license is kinda pretty. I’d hate to see it disappear.

It seems Rep. Russ wants to use Oklahoma law to make being married tons harder for folks who aren’t good, church-going, tithe-paying, choir-singing, gay-stoning, pork-avoiding citizens. No matter how you look at it this seems like a violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which holds that every citizen has the right to equal protection under the law. Even non-church going citizens. Even citizens who (gasp) don’t believe in gods! Since marriage confers approximately 1,400 legal rights, not to mention is totally awesome, denying those rights (or making them harder to access) based on religious preference is probably unconstitutional. And it’s just kind of a dick move, to be honest.

I guess I’ll never understand this rush to embrace the olden days; when the Church and the State were so entangled that to be a non-believer was akin to treason; when the Church decided who could be married and who couldn’t and the State enforced those decisions; when citizens were forced by the State to financially support the Church, even if they didn’t belong to it. Damion referenced the American Civil war in his break-down, but I think my war was about a century earlier than that. My great war was the war that freed the American people from the yoke of Church dominance and set us on the path to be the first great secular nation. To go back now seems downright un-American.

Boycotts – The Original Slacktivist Hideout

Today is the one year anniversary of the great marketing ploy “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day“. Designed to raise awareness of CFA’s commitment to biblical values and increase the profitability of the company, August 1st of last year saw every CFA in Oklahoma full to bursting with god-fearing, chicken-loving activists out to prove how much they support the belief of CFA’s founder Dave Cathy that marriage equality invites “God’s wrath“. It was very successful.

Back then I actually wrote a bit about it and encouraged everyone to join my procott. See, I don’t think boycotts against beliefs are particularly effective. If they are targeted to raise awareness about and put pressure on government actions that offend morality, they can work, assuming of course you’re patient (it usually takes decades) and you can get tremendous international attention. This is because governments are supposed to bend to the will of the people. But making PEOPLE bend to the will of people is another story entirely. Are your beliefs for sale? Mine aren’t, and I don’t understand how withholding money from someone is supposed to make them change their mind about a belief. No one has ever been able to explain that one to me.

But beyond the efficacy argument, I’ve come to view boycotts as immoral, and boycotts against the individual beliefs of business owners are particularly immoral. The idea is to withhold money from a business owner by boycotting their business as a statement of your disapproval of their beliefs, right? So that means you’ve put your own desire to be free from offense above the business owner’s human right to make a living. You are attempting to deny them the opportunity to support themselves and their families because you simply have a different opinion than they do. This doesn’t seem like an egalitarian or progressive stance. An individual’s right to an opportunity to make a living is higher on my personal morality code than any supposed “right” to be free from exposure to differing opinions. An employer does not have moral justification to fire someone just because they have a different opinion, if that happened to an atheist friend of ours we’d raise holy hell about it. How does it become morally justified to do so as a consumer, who is ultimately a business owner’s boss.

Understand that boycotts like this are only effective against minority opinion holders. As a minority opinion holder in rural Oklahoma who also happens to own a business, I’m keenly aware that an organized boycott against my cafe by the majority religious conservatives in my neighborhood would close us for good. But this is only true because I possess minority viewpoints among my customer base. Business owners who enjoy majority status among their potential customers need not fear a boycott over a difference of opinion. As a matter of fact, as we see with CFA, such a boycott can have the opposite effect of increasing their business and further strengthening the business owner, despite his abhorrent viewpoints. Protecting minority viewpoints is usually considered moral and just cause, especially in a socially progressive community.

Additionally, boycotts of the CFA and Hobby Lobby variety harm way more people than just the business owner. Owners will react to any loss of profit by cutting expenses, and the most obvious expense that can be cut is labor. Hourly workers are the first and hardest hit when a company sees a loss of profit. Some people are laid off, others have their hours and benefits cut. This can go on for months or years before the company owner ever sees any harm from a boycott. They will protect their own cut at the expense of their employees. Assuming your boycott is effective, you will harm many more workers before you ever harm the company owner whose opinions so offended you.  You can not consider actions moral if they harm more innocent people than guilty. Also, take into account that the majority of CFA’s are franchises, i.e. owned by someone other than Dan Cathy. By boycotting them you are effectively saying “We’re going to try to harm you and your employees because you bought some signs from a guy we disagree with.” Someone will have to explain the morality of that to me some day.

So, on this first anniversary of “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day” I encourage you all to go out and buy a chicken sandwich. Then donate an equal amount of whatever you spent on that sandwich to your local Pride group, PFLAG, The Human Rights Campaign, the It Get’s Better Project, GLAAD, or any other group fighting the good fight for equal protection for all our citizens. It really is more effective than doing nothing, which is, in the end, what boycotting really is. Doing nothing.

Lessons From The Leadership Underground

For about 6 years I was the president of the elementary athletic association at my kid’s school. The school couldn’t afford to operate an after school sports program for the elementary kids, so the parents started one to provide opportunities for the little guys to play baseball. When my kid started coach pitch the reigning president was stepping down, so I stepped up.

It was a terrifically easy job that appealed to every organizational and helpful instinct I had. They had no formal structure, so I wrote new bylaws for them. I filed for and got 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for the organization. I picked out uniforms, bought the equipment I thought they needed, decided on and organized fundraisers, the whole shebang. There was little to do on an ongoing basis, so myself and the Treasurer basically ran the whole thing ourselves, with little to no assistance from any of the other parents. This suited us just fine, since doing it ourselves was easier than involving others.

I thought we were cooking with gas. The organization was expanding, adding new members every year. Our growth was phenomenal. We had more kids playing baseball than ever before, with new equipment and new uniforms. Everyone was having a blast! I only realized later what a huge mistake I was making.

See, the problem with having so few people involved in organizing and running the group was that we had no oversight. I didn’t even exercise any oversight in the Treasurer’s activities, I simply assumed she, like myself, was doing everything she was supposed to and needed no supervision. I certainly didn’t think I needed supervision, so why should I think she did too? Big mistake.

Turns out she wasn’t depositing the money like she was supposed to. I only found out because a check bounced and the bank called me. She had all the money stashed at her house, but she wasn’t depositing it, and I never noticed. And because nobody else was involved in operations outside of her and myself, nobody else noticed either.

My arrogance in my abilities to handle the organizations operations without help nearly drove us over a cliff. Had I involved more people in the day to day operations, more eyes would have been on the events. More questions would have been asked. More transparency, accountability and frankly honesty would have automatically happened.

Limiting opportunities for people to become involved created other problems as well. About the time I found out about the Treasurer’s problems, I was dealing with a personality conflict between a coach and a parent. Turns out they had a long running feud going back ages that I was unaware of. Their season-long argument really poisoned the well.

Once the next season rolled around the old coach chose not to head the team again, despite the fact that the feuding parent had moved out of town. It was nearly impossible to find a new coach for that team. It wasn’t just that nobody was willing to wade into the poisoned waters, it was because no one else was INVESTED in the team or the organization. It was easier to just move their kid to another team or just withdraw them completely. It took an enormous amount of negotiation, begging and nagging to finally, three weeks before first pitch, name a coach for the team. If I had involved more people in the day to day operations of the league, I have no doubt that we could have named a coach much sooner, because people would have WANTED to help out since they had invested time and effort beforehand. As it was they had no horse in the race, so to speak, so helping out wasn’t a priority.

The realization of just how badly I was leading the organization truly hit home my fifth year. I never intended to stay longer than that; five years is about when new leadership is needed for any organization. But when I looked around to recruit a potential replacement, I realized that nobody was prepared or willing to take the job. NOBODY!

It wasn’t because they weren’t smart, hard working or clever enough. It was because they weren’t involved, i.e. INVESTED in the organization enough to step up and take a leadership role. I had never asked anyone to become invested. I had taken all the responsibility for running the organization on myself, because it was easier.

Now, I was running the organization pretty well. Finances were improving every year, the numbers of kids involved was going up at a steady pace. We had expanded beyond baseball to add cheerleading and football. Fundraising was going like gangbusters. But I hadn’t involved anyone else in the operations. I hadn’t made any other person feel invested or even wanted in the organization. In other words, I wasn’t LEADING the organization.

I had to stay a sixth year just to start putting new people in place to take over. They needed to be trained, informed, involved, and it took a year to do that. I was lucky to find a great woman who was willing to become involved and invested, and she brought in more people who worked hard, learned, and they all went on to actually lead the organization to great success after my departure.

So for future reference, I bring you today’s Lessons In Leadership:

  1. Get your members involved. Remember that, unlike work where people are trying to get that promotion or raise, volunteer organizations offer no perks to anyone in exchange for their interest. Very few members will actually step up on their own and offer to work, so identify talented people in your membership and actively recruit them to get involved.
  2. Make opportunities to get involved obvious. It’s not enough to just announce once or twice when an opportunity is available, make sure your members have a list of opportunities available to them at all times so they can go to it on their own, and promote the hell out of the list.
  3. Have an easy, clear communication system in place to announce involvement opportunities and where people can get to know one another, and, more importantly, you can get to know them. This is frequently done these days online, with Google+, Facebook, Twitter and website forums all easy ways to keep your membership up to speed with projects.
  4. Train your replacement. Never assume you or any other member of leadership will be in that position forever, obviously that’s silly. Assume someone will need to be replaced in a leadership position regularly, and make sure others are being trained in those jobs beforehand. The true test of an organizations strength is when leadership changes. If you can manage the handover with a small learning curve and no abrupt changes in direction, you can know that the organization you lead is strong enough to continue into the future, even without you.
  5. Avoid simply informing your membership of future plans and projects. Try to bring the ideas to them as “rough drafts” or “brainstorming”, and get their input. The more of themselves they see in a project, the more invested they are in the project and the organization as a whole. Plus, you encourage new ideas and thoughts that may have escaped your notice.
  6. Be transparent and accountable. If something goes wrong, fess up to the members as soon as possible and make sure you’ve outlined what steps you are taking to rectify the situation and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Remember, secrecy rarely instills confidence among members, and discourages involvement by them. They will begin to see the organization as “yours” and feel like they have no place in it.

We all want to make our organizations stronger. We should be doing what we can to learn from others successes and failures, so I hope we can all share these with one another across the board in a way that strengthens us all.

The recent outbreak of tornadoes in Oklahoma seems to have brought out the asshole in some folks. From Minister David Brassfield and his preaching about non-believers being “conspicuously absent whenever people need comforting” to Joe Klein’s foot-in-mouth disease, it seems to be open season for slander and hatred toward the secular community.

We all know the stereotypes spread around about non-believers : we’re selfish, narcissistic, immoral, uncaring, and eat babies to boot (delicious in Pad Thai by the way). These ugly lies are certainly what lead people to trust atheists about as much as they do rapists, and they aren’t going away on their own, apparently.

These nasty biases are very hurtful to not only the secular movement as a whole, but to individual atheists in particular. Atheists face stigma and hatred because it’s assumed we’re evil, due in large part to these biases. We all know (or are) that person who was rejected by their friends and family when they came out as non-believers.  Some have been discriminated against in employment and child custody disputes when it’s found out they don’t believe in deities.  We’re forced to carry these misconceptions around and constantly fight them on a personal basis with those we encounter. They permeate the public conscious so completely that we spend much of our time explaining to believers that that, yes, we actually do donate to charity, volunteer our time for good causes, raise money for children’s hospitals and battered women’s shelters, and just generally do good things as a regular part of our lives. It’s exhausting, and not very effective on an individual level.

So, what can be done? How can we combat these prejudices? Clues about this can be found in  the words of our slanderers.

Joe Klein’s “excuseapology” included this: “…it is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized.”

Minister Brassfield also gave us some clues. In his “regretraction” he said: “Another error was taking personal observations as a final say in a matter. In this area, I adopted a method of which I believe some atheists employ: Namely, the “if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” attitude. If it is wrong for one to use that approach to determine the existence of God, then it is wrong for me to use it to determine someone’s involvement in relief efforts.”

They’re kinda right. Ask yourself this – suppose you accused a church of only helping those who share their faith, that their good works aren’t really good works because they only benefit those who agree to listen to the “good word” in exchange for help, and the membership said “No way man, we help anyone no matter their belief”. Wouldn’t the skeptic in you insist on some evidence of this? Wouldn’t you expect to see some corroborating evidence of these unselfish good works? Why should we expect more evidence of their good works than we’re willing or able to present ourselves?

I think we can conclude that more open, organized and obvious good works on behalf of free-thought groups could combat some of the nastier stereotypes of atheists. After all, it’s really hard to hold on to the belief that atheists are selfish if you can see them as an organized group cleaning up what’s left of a stranger’s house after a tornado. The strange thing is, when I express this idea to the members of my local atheist group, I’m met with resistance. My friends fear that increasing the visibility of our good works by wearing matching t-shirts (or my favorite, Action Vests), using publicity methods like media interviews and press releases to promote our good works, or even organizing as a group (as opposed to “just showing up and working individually”) would lead to accusations of grandstanding or being media whores.

But it’s not just the stereotypes of others that seem so unfair. A member of my group stated on a public forum that identifying ourselves “to show others that we are helping is using the misfortune of victims to further our cause.” This and similar comments I’ve seen lately seem to be stereotypes themselves; that people who help as coordinated groups are only doing so to promote themselves and gain media attention.

While that may be true for some, and it is true that altruism should be the main reason anyone helps another, it doesn’t have to be the only reason. To think the only reason one helps another is for self promotion seems terribly cynical. I think it is possible to combine a selfless desire to help others with promotion that highlights the good works. Do we all really believe that Jimmy Carter only talks to the media about how he helps builds houses for the homeless in an effort to promote himself and how awesome he is? He does so to encourage others to serve, either by joining his group or another, or even starting their own. He promotes his efforts so he can expand the movement and bring more help to more people. As a result he and his organization Habitat for Humanity are highly respected and admired. He doesn’t promote Habitat to gain that respect and admiration, they are simply a byproduct of his efforts.

Look, I’m not trying to pick a fight. I think we have a bigger fight to wage against these stereotypes. But I do think one of the tools we could use against these ugly prejudices is media attention on the good works WE’RE ALREADY DOING. Coordinate matching shirts or vests so people can easily identify your group. If there is media present don’t be afraid to ask for an interview. Send press releases out when your group raises money for the local VA hospital or animal shelter. Learn to use the media for what it is – an enormously successful platform for disseminating information and knowledge.

Organization is extremely important because it allows small groups to punch above their weight while giving others a highly visible and effective example. You can get more work from 20 organized people than you can from 100 unorganized people. So set up a “Good Works Action Plan”. Identify those in your group who are natural leaders and task them with organizing small groups of people to plan fundraisers or charity events, then promote the hell out of them. Make sure you’ve identified those in your organization with special skills that would be helpful in crisis/emergency situations and keep them informed as to what’s needed and where. Plan ahead for potential relief and quick response efforts. But above all, don’t be afraid to tell the world who you are, what you’re doing and how they can join in and help.

Let’s all make sure we’re fighting these stereotypes in an effective and productive manner. Who knows, the unfair bias you crush just might be your own.

Good Without God (But Don’t Tell Anyone)

LASS Finally Comes Out

Okay, I know it’s been a while since I wrote anything. I’m sorry. It is true that I’m pretty lazy, so postings will probably be few and far between. However, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing ANYTHING. As a matter of fact I, along with my good friend Kelli Vanpool, have been organizing a relatively new secular organization called Lawton Area Secular Society, which happens to be approaching it’s first anniversary on Memorial Day (yay!).

Anyhoo, since Lawton is attached at the brain to Ft. Sill, a U.S. Army base where soldiers practice bombing stuff (day and night, for weeks on end, till you ignore approaching thunderstorms because you assume it’s just millions of tax payer dollars at work again), we pay particular attention to the role religion has assumed in our military. Kelli, being ex-Army and married to an Army guy, is especially interested in it. So you can imagine how amused we were to see the stories being spread about Christians being court-martialed for expressing their beliefs! We decided to write something about it for the Lawton Constitution, our local paper, and I thought I’d share it with you. I have no idea if they’ll publish it, but I’ll keep y’all posted! So here’s what we wrote:

The internet rumor mill is working overtime trying to convince us all that loyal soldiers are being court-martialed for simply professing their Christian faith. Sounds terrible, right? Nobody should be persecuted for simply expressing their faith, especially here in the United States! How could something like that happen?

Well, the good news is that there isn’t a single verifiable instance of this happening, and if DoD regulations are enforced, there never will. Regulations specifically require commanding officers in our military services to protect the religious liberty rights of our service members, and to make reasonable accommodations for the expression of those religious beliefs. This guarantee of religious freedom is codified in Title 10 USC, sections 3073, 3547, 5142, and 8067. Free exercise of religious freedom for military personnel is further detailed in DoD Directive (DODD) 1300.17, “Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services,” which describes the commander’s responsibility to provide for religious accommodation.

So why all the hoopla? Maybe it’s the second part of that rule – requests for accommodation should be approved, but only “when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline.” It’s becoming clear that the actions of a few devout service members, especially in the higher levels of the command structure, are edging close, if not crossing, this line.

Reported events at various military installations across the country show that some commanders and ranking service personnel have been using their religious beliefs as an excuse to harass, punish and haze others, especially those of a lower rank. Some of these reports include:

•In May 2010 soldiers attending training at Ft. Eustice in Virginia reported being confined to their quarters and ordered to do maintenance for opting out of attending a concert by Christian band BarlowGirl organized by the base command structure.

•Mandatory “spiritual Fitness Assessments” are commonly used to evaluate leadership and command skills, with required remediation for service members who are deemed “not spiritual enough”.

•There are numerous reports from soldiers suffering from PTSD who were referred to chaplains for counseling rather than licensed mental health professionals. Suffering soldiers are commonly told their mental health problems are a result of their lack of faith.

•In 2007 several senior officers, including generals, participated in a video promoting Christianity. These interviews were conducted in their Pentagon offices, during normal work hours, and they were all in full uniform. Three of these officers were allowed to retire with full benefits without any disciplinary action, and several others were subsequently promoted as high as three star general.

•At West Point, cadets report that officers “routinely equate resiliency and leadership ability with religious devotion”, and are told that including prayer in mandatory events is “what will be expected of you as officers”. At least one cadet reports having been asked by a superior officer during a formal development meeting “How can you have morals if you don’t believe in God?”

•At the Air Force Academy there is an underground group of more than 100 members, most self described Christians, who exaggerate their devoutness because they believe it’s necessary to be considered cadets in good standing. A recent survey at the academy shows that at more than 170 cadets face routine religious pressure, primarily from evangelical Christians, and fear reprisal if they complain about it.

Before we all assume these are just a handful of disgruntled disbelievers trying to stir up trouble for those they disagree with, Mikey Weinstein, founder of Military Religious Freedom Foundation, estimates 90% of mail he receives are from Christians seeking relief from evangelical or fundamental Christians.

It’s clear from even the most cursory review of these reports that there is a problem with some in the chain of command using their proselytization as a means of “recruiting” new members for their faith, and lower level service members feel they must comply or risk be punished or having their career endangered.

Members of the Armed Forces willingly surrender on a temporary basis certain free exercise rights when it impinges on military discipline and the successful completion of a military objective. Any activity that adversely affects unit cohesion, mission readiness or discipline, religiously based or not, is subject to disciplinary action, up to and including court martial. These regulations are in place to protect service members, not persecute them.

We applaud DoD’s reminder to it’s chain of command that aggressive proselytizing which lessens unit cohesion or infringes on a service member’s First Amendment rights is unacceptable in today’s military. We believe that military readiness can and has been damaged by the aggressive actions of some evangelicals in the military to browbeat their subordinates into embracing their own religious beliefs.

If any service member has experienced this type of discrimination, intimidation or punishment, we encourage them to contact either the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) or Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) for help. We appreciate and support all our brothers and sisters in the armed services, and hope that anyone who needs help seeks it out sooner rather than later.

Brenda Weber and Kellina VanPool
Organizers, Lawton Area Secular Society (LASS)

(LASS can be contacted on Facebook, or at