Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fighting For God

It can be tricky for atheists in the U.S. military, at least according to Army Specialist Jeremy Hall:

Army Spc. Jeremy Hall did two tours in Iraq, saw his share of fire and came back in one piece. Too bad he needs a bodyguard to keep his fellow soldiers from attacking him now that he's back in the States.

Hall's problems started in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner in 2006, during his second tour. One of the men at Hall's table asked that they pray together. The soldiers joined hands — except for Hall. Most didn't know he was an atheist until that moment.

"I joined as a religious person," says the 23-year-old Hall, who is now stationed at Fort Riley. "Then I met some other people with different ideas, and I actually read the Bible. It didn't make any sense to me, so I decided for myself. It really doesn't matter anyway. You're going to die and pay taxes either way."

Hall kept those opinions to himself at the dinner. He says he declined to pray as respectfully as he could. When word got around the tables that he wouldn't pray, he was confronted by a senior-ranking staff sergeant, who demanded to know why. Hall explained that he was an atheist — then explained what an atheist was when the sergeant didn't understand.

"He basically told me to get the hell out of there and that I couldn't eat with them," Hall says. "I just sat there quietly and finished it. A Mormon girl actually stood up for me and said they shouldn't do that, because it's not just me. They give Mormons shit, too."

In July 2007, Hall decided to find out how many soldiers agreed with him. He approached his Army chaplain for permission to hold a meeting of atheists, freethinkers and any other non-Christians. He got the chaplain's blessing and posted fliers for the meeting.

"There wasn't any support for anyone like me, so I just wanted to provide it. Strength in numbers," Hall says. "I wasn't asking for domination, just that we are here, and we are real, and you've got to deal with us."

Hall's fliers were ripped up or defaced. "'Fag, God loves you, you're going to hell,' all kinds of crazy shit," Hall says of the writing on the notices. But the nonbelievers still showed up. So did Maj. Freddy Welborn, Hall says.

The meeting didn't delve into deep questions. The few who attended didn't get much further than who they were and where they were from when Welborn stood up to confront the group. According to Hall, Welborn threatened to use the meeting as justification to keep Hall from re-enlisting, as well as potential action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Jeremy Hall has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that his right not to be coerced by the government to practice a particular religion has been violated.

It's just a little bit scary to wonder if the military might have a religious axe to grind, is it not?