Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Atheist Soldier Sues the Army for Discrimination

This story is getting more mainstream coverage now.

Army Spc. Jeremy Hall was raised Baptist.

Like many Christians, he said grace before dinner and read the Bible before bed. Four years ago when he was deployed to Iraq, he packed his Bible so he would feel closer to God.

He served two tours of duty in Iraq and has a near perfect record. But somewhere between the tours, something changed. Hall, now 23, said he no longer believes in God, fate, luck or anything supernatural.

Hall said he met some atheists who suggested he read the Bible again. After doing so, he said he had so many unanswered questions that he decided to become an atheist.

His sudden lack of faith, he said, cost him his military career and put his life at risk. Hall said his life was threatened by other troops and the military assigned a full-time bodyguard to protect him out of fear for his safety.

In March, Hall filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, among others. In the suit, Hall claims his rights to religious freedom under the First Amendment were violated and suggests that the United States military has become a Christian organization.

The CNN story mentions two instances, one where he was told to leave the table at Thanksgiving after not joining in prayer. The other was when a fellow soldier yelled "Do you believe in Jesus now?" after he was nearly killed in an attack. But they don't mention the incident that Hall says actually sparked the lawsuit, which he describes in this interview:

Hall tried to organize an atheist meeting, and his commanding officer showed up. After the short meeting, the officer berated Hall and told him he was in violation of several codes of conduct. That seems like a pretty clear violation of the First Amendment.

Now I know that the military isn't like civilian life, and you obviously don't enjoy the full spectrum of freedoms that people outside the military do. But is does a soldier forfeit his freedom of religion when he puts on a uniform?

I also understand about unit cohesion, at least in philosophy. The idea is that soldiers who have more in common will act more effectively than a hodge-podge group who have a lot of differences. This was an argument in favor of keeping homosexuals out of the military (or at least not asking them if they were homosexual). I haven't seen actual studies on this, but I don't find it hard to believe that uniformity among soldiers in a unit actually makes them more effective in many ways.

This raises several questions. Is effectiveness more important than principles? America generally acknowledges diversity as a strength. Should diversity be reflected in the military as well?

I can also understand the conceptual overlap between Christianity and the military. They are both top-down ideologies. Do what you're told, and you're not given a lot of latitude in which to interpret the commands from above. I can see that a Christian military commander might not fully trust an atheist with little respect for divine authority (he might just decide he doesn't have respect for earthly authority either!).

Actually, if the military decided that being an atheist made you unfit to serve in combat, most atheists (except those yearning for military action) would probably be fine with it. That would mean that all the gung-ho believers could line up for the hail of bullets and bombs.

But in the end I don't think we'd want to live in a country with a military that supports that kind of discrimination. The military has learned to incorporate minorities and women into their ranks. They can deal with a few infidels too.


Philip said...

I agree. They're fighting to protect their homes and families. They're fighting to protect the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Grandma, apple pie, fireworks on the 4th of July - I don't see how they're at a loss for common ideals to rally around that they need to add Christian (or at least monotheistic) faith to it.

Kenny Wyland said...

I don't imagine they are really upset with Jews in the ranks and they would create a similar kind of disruption (not exactly the same, but still non-Christian). This is just the next prejudice that we have to publicly identify and work to undo.