"US military accused of harboring fundamentalism"
Since his last combat deployment in Iraq, Jeremy Hall has had a rough time, getting shoved and threatened by his fellow soldiers. The trouble started there when he would not pray in the mess hall.
"A senior ranking staff sergeant told me to leave and sit somewhere else because I refused to pray," Hall, a 23-year-old US army specialist, told AFP.
Later, Hall was confronted by a major for holding an authorized meeting of "atheists and freethinkers" on his base. The officer threatened to discipline him and block his re-enlistment.
"He said: 'You guys are being a problem and problems can be removed,'" Hall said. "He was yelling at us and stuff and at the very end he says, 'I really love you guys, I want you to see the light.'"
Now Hall is suing the major and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, accusing them of breaching his constitutional rights. A campaign group, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, is waiting for the Pentagon to respond to a lawsuit filed in a Kansas federal court on Hall's behalf.
It alleges a "pernicious pattern and practice" of infringement of religious liberties in the military.
The group's founder, former Air Force lawyer Mikey Weinstein, said he has documented 6,800 testimonies by military personnel -- nearly all of them Christians -- of sometimes punitive or humiliating attempts to make them accept a fundamentalist evangelical interpretation of Christianity.
"I am at war with those people who would create a fundamentalist Christian theocracy in the technologically most lethal organization ever created by our species, which is the United States armed forces," he said.
He plans to add extra charges and possibly other lawsuits this month.
"It violates title seven of the US code for an employer to push their Biblical world view on an employee," he said. "But it's a trillion times worse when that is not just your shift manager at Starbucks but that is your military superior."
He singles out one of the major Christian groups in the military, the Officers Christian Fellowship (OCF).
The group represents 15,000 US military personnel around the world, according to its director, retired Air Force general Bruce Fister.
"It is not the position of OCF to try and coerce people to believe what we believe," Fister told AFP.
OCF's aim, as stated on its website, is to achieve "a spiritually transformed military, with ambassadors for Christ in uniform, empowered by the Holy Spirit."
It professes belief in "the eternal blessedness of the saved; and the everlasting, conscious punishment of the lost."
Fister emphasized the group's work to support families of soldiers deployed in the "global war on terror."
"People make mistakes. There's probably been some instances where people have wrongly spoken," he added. "We'd like them not to, but that's life."
"Our checks within our equal opportunity channels identified fewer than 100 formal complaints over a two-year period," said Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez.
Army spokesman Paul Boyce told AFP: "The Army places a high value on the rights of its soldiers to observe tenets of their respective religious faiths."
The MRFF's constitutional complaint "is a matter of the courts system to address and resolve," he added.
"The joint standards of conduct for the Armed Forces and military equal opportunity policies address the freedom of religion, avoiding discrimination because of religion."
But Weinstein argued that most personnel are "too terrified" to speak out.
"When you actually fight against them, they make your life hell," said Hall, adding he has been passed over for promotion since launching his lawsuit. "I can't get a leg up no matter what I do."
A former military chaplain of a prestigious US military college reported being prevented from leading worship after disagreeing with the fundamentalist stance of other officials.
"I am not ready to say that if someone does not profess Christ as their savior that they are going to hell ... That got a lot of people angered," the minister told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation against a spouse who is a senior officer.
"The leader of the youth group that ministered to the teens (at the academy) said that Catholics were not Christians and that Muslims hated Christians, and that created a lot of tension," the ex-chaplain added.
"As a soldier, many times you want to believe you're fighting on the right side. It's easy to kill someone if you believe that they're going to hell and that they are religiously opposed to you."
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