Military Accused of Infringing Upon Religious Freedom

The Founding Fathers set up a secular state in order to guarantee the rights of all to worship, or not worship, as they choose. In the early days of the nation, religious leaders such as Roger Williams were among the strongest defenders of separation of church and state. In 1960 John Kennedy said while campaigning,  “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” In this presidential campaign, Barack Obama has explained:

For my friends on the right, I think it would be helpful to remember the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy but also our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves.

It was the forbearers of Evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they didn’t want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it. Given this fact, I think that the right might worry a bit more about the dangers of sectarianism.

Despite this tradition of a secular government, there is one portion of the government which is controlled by religious fundamentalists who, unlike religious groups of the past, fail to respect separation of church and state. A news report from yesterday shows the latest example of the lack of respect for religious freedom in the military:

Since his last combat deployment in Iraq, Jeremy Hall has had a rough time, getting shoved and threatened by his fellow soldiers. The trouble started there when he would not pray in the mess hall.”A senior ranking staff sergeant told me to leave and sit somewhere else because I refused to pray,” Hall, a 23-year-old US army specialist, told AFP.

Later, Hall was confronted by a major for holding an authorized meeting of “atheists and freethinkers” on his base. The officer threatened to discipline him and block his re-enlistment.

“He said: ‘You guys are being a problem and problems can be removed,'” Hall said. “He was yelling at us and stuff and at the very end he says, ‘I really love you guys, I want you to see the light.'”

Now Hall is suing the major and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, accusing them of breaching his constitutional rights. A campaign group, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, is waiting for the Pentagon to respond to a lawsuit filed in a Kansas federal court on Hall’s behalf.

It alleges a “pernicious pattern and practice” of infringement of religious liberties in the military.

The group’s founder, former Air Force lawyer Mikey Weinstein, said he has documented 6,800 testimonies by military personnel — nearly all of them Christians — of sometimes punitive or humiliating attempts to make them accept a fundamentalist evangelical interpretation of Christianity.

“I am at war with those people who would create a fundamentalist Christian theocracy in the technologically most lethal organization ever created by our species, which is the United States armed forces,” he said.

With perhaps a bit of snark, P.Z. Myers finds this to be a major barrier to secularism:

I’m not the violent sort, and I think we need to achieve an enlightened society through reason and education … but that’s all futile when the other side is busily gathering the guns.

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