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.

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

(LASS can be contacted on Facebook, Meetup.com or at LawtonAreaSecularSociety@gmail.com)