Atheists in Foxholes: Preventing Religious Discrimination in the Military under an Obama Administration

Secular Coalition for America and Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers Unveil Proposal on Religious Accommodation at Pre-Veterans Day Briefing

For Immediate Release: November 10, 2008
Contact: Anne Singer, 202-271-4679

Video now online: Watch the press conference below

Also see: Secular Coalition Urges Changes To Religious Accommodation Practices In The Military (.pdf)

Washington, DC - Atheists and others with no religious affiliation make up 21% of the U.S. Armed Forces, and yet they suffer harassment, discrimination and proselytizing in a military increasingly dominated by a powerful minority of evangelical Christians. Other military personnel who do not hold a born-again Christian belief are similarly marginalized. The Secular Coalition for America and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers held a briefing today at the National Press Club in Washington, DC and proposed a new set of policy recommendations in a memo to President-elect Obama as he considers staffing and policies regarding the military.

While some existing regulations support the free exercise of religion, they are silent on accommodating the hundreds of thousands of atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nontheists currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces who have no religion to exercise. "Commanders, chaplains, and other officials simply interpret nontheists out of the protected religious categories," said Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. "What we are asking," continued Torpy, "is that nontheistic service personnel be extended the same institutional protections and support that traditional faith groups enjoy. That is why we ask for a new directive that explicitly identifies nontheistic personnel as protected."

The policy recommendations released today focus special attention on the chaplain corps in the U.S. military. "Not only do chaplains often fail to intervene when subordinates are harassed, denied promotions, proselytized or threatened," observes Lori Lipman Brown, the Secular Coalition’s director, "they often are the worst offenders." Brown explains that "one of our goals with these new proposals is to make chaplains accountable for the religious climate on military bases, on ships and anywhere members of our Armed Forces are serving."

Joining Brown and Torpy at today's press conference were an atheist veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and an atheist Army intelligence officer, both in their first public appearances on this subject. Former Army First Lieutenant Wayne Adkins resigned his commission as an officer in the Ohio Army National Guard in 2006 after the Army systematically thwarted his efforts to lodge a formal complaint against a general who opined that there are no atheists in foxholes; Adkins contends this statement qualifies as unlawful discrimination under current Army regulations. Army Reserve Major Laurel Williams has served in Military Intelligence since 1985, both active and reserve, including a year-long deployment during Operation Enduring Freedom. Williams is pursuing a complaint against a military chaplain who used a family counseling event to proselytize.

The policy recommendations memo addressed to President-elect Obama, entitled Secular Coalition Urges Changes To Religious Accommodation Practices In The Military, and signed by Lori Lipman Brown contains an Action Plan to Protect Religious Liberty and Freedom of Conscience consisting of four detailed sections which are summarized below:

Vetting New Appointments and Promotions to ensure that appointees are committed "to fostering a secular military that protects the religious liberty and freedom of conscience of our soldiers."
A Directive from your New Secretary of Defense that would "demonstrate your administration's commitment to implement the change we need" and require all branches to update their regulations with regard to promoting religion over non-religion, proselytizing, discrimination and the role and training of chaplains.
Conduct a Survey of Military Personnel "in order to determine the pervasiveness of the problems of religious discrimination and proselytizing."
Establish a Commission for Religious Accommodation charged with, among other things: creating effective channels for reporting failures to accommodate religious and nonreligious service members' beliefs; investigating such failures and ensuring corrective actions are taken; reporting annually to Congress on complaints; recommending improvements in training and regulations; and ensuring diversity among the chaplain corps that represents the diversity of the military.

The complete policy memo can be viewed in PDF form at www.secular.org.

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The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) is a 501(c)3 and member of the Secular Coalition for America. MAAF is a community support network that connects military members from around the world with each other and with local organizations, and takes action to educate and train both the military and civilian community about nontheists in the military and the issues they face. Where necessary, MAAF identifies, examines, and responds to insensitive practices that illegally promote theism over non-theism within the military, or unethically discriminate against minority religions or differing beliefs. MAAF supports Constitutional State-Church Separation and First Amendment rights for all service members. The group’s website is http://www.maaf.info/.

The Secular Coalition for America is a 501(c)4 advocacy organization consisting of nine member groups which serve atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and other nontheistic Americans. Its purpose is to amplify the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States. The Coalition works to protect the civil rights of nontheists and lobbies the U.S. Congress on issues of concern to its constituents. The group's website is www.secular.org.

Press Conference Video

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