TOPEKA, Kan. — A newly expanded federal lawsuit alleges the military doesn’t take complaints of religious discrimination seriously enough and allows personnel to try to convert Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan to Christianity.
The Military Religions Freedom Foundation and a Fort Riley, Kan., soldier suing Defense Secretary Robert Gates now allege a bias toward evangelical Christianity pervades even the Army’s suicide prevention manual and the Air Force’s sponsorship of an evangelical motocross ministry.
The Defense Department said complaints about religious discrimination are relatively few and pointed to military policies against endorsing any religious view.
Spc. Dustin Chalker and the Albuquerque, N.M.-based Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed their amended lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan. They filed the original lawsuit in September.
Chalker, a combat medic, is an atheist whose original complaints included being forced to attend military formations where Christian prayers were given. The foundation says it represents about 11,000 military personnel, almost all of them Christians upset about what they view as discrimination by more conservative and evangelical personnel.
“Our amended complaint is specifically designed to further stab at the throbbing unconstitutional heart of darkness that comprises the systemic fundamentalist Christianity so pervasive and pernicious in today’s American armed forces,” said Mikey Weinstein, the foundation’s president.
Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said the agency doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits. But she said it has identified fewer than 50 complaints about alleged violations of religious freedoms during the past three years, with 1.4 million personnel in uniform.
She also noted a policy that says, “The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the Armed Forces to observe the tenets of their respective religions.”
Weinstein said Chalker had attempted in recent months to pursue his complaints within the Army but has been told they were “unfounded.”
The amended lawsuit said the foundation has “a number of well-documented reports” from others about unsuccessful attempts to resolve such issues. It said the military has failed to “adequately address complaints.”
The amended lawsuit also added examples of what Weinstein called “the noxiously unconstitutional pattern and practice of fundamentalist Christian oppression” within the armed forces.
That pattern, the amended lawsuit alleges, includes attempts to convert Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lawsuit includes comments from two soldiers, including a chaplain, that appeared in Christian missionary publications about such activities, including their desire to distribute Bibles.
The lawsuit also criticizes the Army’s 2008 manual on suicide prevention, quoting it as promoting “religiosity” as a necessary part of the effort and describing “connectivity to the divine” as “fundamental.”
The lawsuit also notes that in 2007, the Air Force sponsored “Team Faith,” which performs motocross stunt shows to “lead extreme sports athletes to Christ.”
In addition, the amended lawsuit alleges, the Air Force’s Air and Space Power Journal recently published an article portraying Islam as inherently violent, by an author with ties to an anti-Muslim group.
The lawsuit also alleges three military chaplains have endorsed specific ministries or religious products while in uniform. Those ministries, the lawsuit said, included a group that had a camp meeting this summer in which a speaker described President-elect Barack Obama as “an Islamic terrorist sympathizer.”
The case is Specialist Dustin Chalker and Military Religious Freedom Foundation v. Robert Gates, secretary, United States Department of Defense, No. 08-cv-02467.