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JewishJournal.com

March 9, 2008

Atheist soldier sues Army

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/atheist_soldier_sues_army/

There are no atheists in foxholes.” That’s how the saying goes. But last week a U.S. soldier again sued the Army for allegedly violating his right to be an atheist. No, not because they wouldn’t let him into their foxhole during a firefight, but because, he claims, he was denied the ability to hold a meeting in Iraq to discuss his godlessness.

The suit was filed in September but dropped last month so the new allegations could be included. Among the defendants are Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Hall alleges he was denied his constitutional right to hold a meeting to discuss atheism while he was deployed in Iraq with his military police unit. He says in the new complaint that his promotion was blocked after the commander of the 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley sent an e-mail post-wide saying Hall had sued.

Fort Riley spokeswoman Alison Kohler said the post “can’t comment on ongoing legal matters” and offered no further statement.

According to the lawsuit, Hall was counseled by his platoon sergeant after being informed that his promotion was blocked. He says the sergeant explained that Hall would be “unable to put aside his personal convictions and pray with his troops” and would have trouble bonding with them if promoted to a leadership position.

Hall responded that religion is not a requirement of leadership, even though the sergeant wondered how he had rights if atheism wasn’t a religion. Hall said atheism is protected under the Army’s chaplain’s manual.

“It shouldn’t matter if one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist,” said Pedro Irigonegaray, an attorney whose firm filed the lawsuit. “In the military, all are equal and to be considered equal.”

The AP article also quotes Mikey Weinstein, the firebrand crusader who sued the Air Force for proselytizing and now runs the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which joined Hall in the suit. Weinstein calls the Army’s actions are “beyond despicable, indeed wholly awful,” which sounds like the kind of language and hyperbole that accompanies a lawsuit that probably will be settled quietly and for a handsome sum.

The real question, though, is whether Hall was discriminated against because his “religious beliefs” were out of line with the “established religion” of the military. (Just to be clear: The military has no established religion, though the chaplaincy program certainly favors Christians.) But, to be fair to Hall, does dogmatic opposition to religion count as its own form of religion? To answer that, I’d like to revisit an old post on a church of Christians and Jews that used marijuana to communicate with God.

“You have to give people a feeling or a sense of the sacred and then you have to bond them in community,” Robert C. Fuller, a religion professor at Bradley University in Illinois and author of Stairways to Heaven: Drugs in American Religious History, told me. “The fact of the matter is anything that helps with those two function has religious values.”

Now, Fuller isn’t a constitutional lawyer, and certainly not a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, but based on his explanation, for atheists to be recognized as a religious group they would have to give fellow believers a “sense of sacred.”

(Hat tip: GetReligion)

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