Soldier Claims Promotion Blocked After Complaint That Army Violates Right to Atheism

An Army specialist refiled a religious freedom lawsuit Wednesday, alleging among other violations that his promotion was blocked after Fort Riley's commanding general sent a post-wide e-mail about him.

Attorneys for Spc. Jeremy Hall and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed the new complaint in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan. They had dropped the lawsuit last month so that the new allegations could be included. Among the defendants are Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The new 12-page complaint alleges that Hall's promotion was delayed 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.

Hall first filed the lawsuit in September, alleging he was denied his constitutional right to hold a meeting to discuss atheism while he was deployed in Iraq with his military police unit.

Maj. Freddy J. Welborn was named in the lawsuit as the officer who prevented Hall from holding his meeting. It alleges that Welborn threatened to file military charges against Hall and to block his re-enlistment for trying to hold a meeting of atheists and non-Christians. Welborn has denied the allegations.

According to the lawsuit, Hall was counseled by his platoon sergeant after being informed that his promotion was blocked. The sergeant explained that Hall would be "unable to put aside his personal convictions and pray with his troops" and 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 was protected under the Army's chaplain's manual.

Topeka attorney Bob Eye said Hall is being punished for being an atheist and asserting his constitutional rights.

"It's a situation that, unfortunately, we wish we didn't have to address and he was part of an organization that was neutral on religious grounds," Eye said. "Based on Jeremy's experiences, that's not happening."

Mikey Weinstein, the foundation's president and founder, said the lawsuit would show the "almost incomprehensible national security risks to America" posed by the military's pattern of violating the religious freedoms of those in uniform.

"It is beyond despicable, indeed wholly unlawful, that the United States Army is actively attempting to destroy the professional career of one of its decorated young fighting soldiers, with two completed combat tours in Iraq, simply because he had the rare courage to stand up for his constitutional rights," Weinstein said in a statement.

Hall's attorneys also say that Fort Riley has permitted a culture promoting Christianity and anti-Islamic sentiment, including posters quoting conservative columnist Ann Coulter and sale of a book, "A Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam," at the post exchange. Hall took photos of the poster and book.

Weinstein said actions amounted the "force-feeding" of fundamentalist Christianity by the military's command structure and could not be tolerated.

The lawsuit also alleges that Gates permits a military culture in which officers are encouraged to pressure soldiers to adopt and espouse fundamentalist Christian beliefs, and in which activities by Christian organizations are sanctioned.

It also says the military permits proselytizing by soldiers, tolerates anti-Semitism and the placing of religious symbols on military equipment, and allows the use of military e-mail accounts to send religious statements.

The Pentagon has said that the military values and respects religious freedoms, but that accommodating religious practices should not interfere with unit cohesion, readiness, standards or discipline.

Weinstein previously sued the Air Force for acts he said illegally imposed Christianity on its students at the academy. A federal judge threw out that lawsuit in 2006. Those issues are being raised in the Hall lawsuit.

Pedro Irigonegaray, a foundation board member and attorney whose firm filed the lawsuit, said the military's alleged violation of the First Amendment could not be tolerated, given its position as a world power.

"The military is not above the Constitution and therefore a violation of the Establishment Clause by the United States military creates such a degree of danger because one never knows whose church is going to be in power," he said. "It shouldn't matter if one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist. In the military, all are equal and to be considered equal."