Oct 20 2011

Atheist Soldier Stands Ground in Spite of Threats for Refusing to Participate in Military Graduation Prayer

Yesterday morning, at a rehearsal for their AIT graduation at Fort Jackson, which was being held in a chapel, the graduating soldiers were ordered to bow their heads and clasp their hands in front of them while an invocation was being given. One soldier refused to do this, and immediately shot of an email from his iPhone to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) while the rehearsal was still going on. The email began: “I graduate tomorrow from AIT, and an invocation is being given in which I am a captive audience and am being ordered to bow my head and clasp my hands in front of me.”

Mikey Weinstein responded by sending the soldier his cell phone number. The soldier responded, “Will call when able. May be pulling me from graduation. Have to see commander and 1SG.”

When the soldier went into a bathroom and called Mikey, he was ordered to come out by a sergeant, but he left the phone call connected, allowing Mikey to hear what was going on as it was happening.

The soldier was sent to see their company commander and 1st sergeant. Another email came in to Mikey: “Company Commander threatened me with UCMJ if I do not do it. Told to call IG, am doing soon.”

In spite of threats of being pulled from their own graduation and punishment under the UCMJ, this soldier stood their ground and deserves a big round of applause from all of us.

In the end, the soldier was allowed to simply stand at attention — no head bowing or hand clasping.

Later in the day, the soldier wrote out the whole story in an email to MRFF, excerpts of which appeared in a post on the CNN blog, “Military backs off threat to pull atheist from ceremony.” The CNN post now has hundreds of comments, mostly supportive of what this soldier did.

Here’s the whole email that the excerpts in the CNN post came from:

“I am a soldier in the United States Army. I was raised as a Southern Baptist. Today I was attending graduation practice for my AIT graduation. When we arrived at the chapel where the ceremony is taking place in, I saw the plan for graduation included a prayer.

When we reached that part, we were told we were required to bow our heads and cross our hands in front of us. I immediately pointed out that not only is a prayer at a public ceremony unconstitutional, but to force someone to give the illusion of religion when the individual does not believe in any religion is blatantly wrong and very illegal. Instantly the rest of my platoon groaned and said to suck it up, stop complaining, etc. I stood my ground while the sergeant in charge said the same thing, albeit more politely.

When I sat down, I immediately e-mailed Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation about the incident. He quickly responded to my email with his phone number. I went into the bathroom to make the call. However, partway through a sergeant came in and told me to get off and come outside the bathroom. My call remained connected, and the sergeants berated me for jumping the chain of command, although where consulting a lawyer violates the chain of command was never pointed out.

I was then sent to see my company commander and 1st SG. I told them my issue and was again told it was unfounded. I was told that if I did not bow my head and clasp my hands that I would be subject to UCMJ punitive action. As I refuse to compromise on my beliefs, the idea that my military career could be cut short due to standing up for my beliefs frightened me. I was told I could do it or call the inspector general.

When I returned to the chapel, I asked my cadre if I could call IG. He told me to wait until after practice. I was then again ridiculed by my peers, however I stood my ground. Shortly thereafter, my commander came to me and told me that bowing was now suddenly ‘optional’ and that I could remain at attention.

Mr. Weinstein moved remarkably fast on this, and I believe that my cadre’s knowledge that I already had a lawyer from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation in the loop is what caused them to change their blatantly unconstitutional order.

My fear of punishment for standing up for my beliefs is gone, and knowing how quickly the MRFF can move to help soldiers whose rights are violated gives me a high level of confidence. The promotion of religion is not rare. There is a Christian prayer on the wall of a schoolhouse, missionary pamphlets in a stairwell of another schoolhouse, and occasionally extra privileges given to soldiers who attend a Cadence weekend retreat (such as allowing ‘black phase’ soldiers to stay there overnight and wear civilian clothes). MRFF’s work to get the numerous promotions of religion in the military out is a great service to the entire armed forces.”


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  1. 1

    Good resolution on this, but certainly not the last time we’ll see this situation.

    May I make a pedantic request? Leaving the word “their” out of the headline does it no harm and grates less on the eye. I realize you’re trying not to “out” the soldier’s gender, but there are better ways to do so than following the Facebook stylebook.

  2. 2
    Chris Rodda

    You’re right, Randomfactor. I actually didn’t have the “Their” in the title at first, but added it for some reason. I think I’ll change it back now that you’ve mentioned it.

  3. 3

    Randomfactor, singular “they” and its variations have been standard English for over a hundred years. We just haven’t seen it that much because little attention was paid to nongendered writing until very recently. Omitting the pronoun is usually nonstandard, and (in case you were thinking of them) “Xe” and such inventions are always nonstandard.

    Now on topic, I am absolutely thrilled that the soldier didn’t back down and that the MRFF were so quick to respond to the situation. It was difficult. It’s difficult in the workplace, too, especially in Texas–but I will take the soldier as my inspiration to try harder to object to things like pictures of Jesus in the reception area (which are against company diversity policy anyway).

  4. 4
    Chris Rodda

    That’s why I like to post these stories, speedwell. Even though this situation was quickly resolved and the soldier (as well as religious freedom) prevailed, people need to know about these stories so they see what can be accomplished when someone takes a stand, and maybe inspire them to take a stand where they can.

  5. 5
    The Lorax

    Poor CNN… the soldier went to a church for help with this, and somehow he’s an atheist? Oh well.

    Great story, and props to the MRFF for moving so quickly.

  6. 6

    My apologies for the off-topic question, but I thought you might know the answer. There is an alleged quote from James Madison that has been making its way around the internet recently. It goes:

    “We are free today substantially but the day will come when our Republic will be an impossibility. It will be impossible because wealth will be concentrated in the hands of a few. A republic cannot stand upon bayonets, and when that day comes, when the wealth of the nation will be in the hands of a few, then we must rely upon the wisdom of the best elements in the country to readjust the laws of the nation to the changed conditions.”

    Any idea if the quote is real?

    P.S. When is the second volume of LfJ coming out? I loved the first volume.

  7. 7
    Chris Rodda

    Hey, joet … somebody else emailed me about that alleged Madison quote, and I couldn’t find it used anywhere until the early 1900s. I’ll look a bit more when I get a chance, but it seems highly dubious to me.

    And, I am working on volume 2! It’s just hard with working for MRFF to find enough time. I’m also working on finally launching my podcast, which I had hoped to do by the end of the summer to go along with starting this blog. All I can do right now is to keep plugging away and eventually all this stuff will get done.

  8. 8

    When I was a supervisor people like this soldier, who are not afraid to say no, were my go-to workers if I had a thorny problem that needed solved.

    My peers usually thought those who questioned and argued were disruptive and a pain to supervise. I treasured those types. I would rather be told I’m about to do something wrong, even by someone whose boldness borders on disrespect, than to have to stand tall in front of those I report to and explain my mistake.

    Looking through history the biggest and most important changes have come about by people who stood up to current thought and dared to say: “I know a better way of doing this.”

    If the military were smart they would put the soldier on a fast track to be a leader. However the big green weenie doesn’t work that way.

  9. 9
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    It’s great that this soldier is now not being forced to bow their head, but isn’t the prayer itself *still* a violation of the Establishment clause?

  10. 10
    Reginald Selkirk

    I need some de-jargonization. What is AIT? UCMJ?

  11. 11

    I was Navy not Army but I will give it a shot:

    AIT – Advanced Individual Training: Specialized training in your specialty, typically you go here right after boot camp.

    UCMJ – Uniform code of Military Justice: Congressional Code of Military Criminal Law applicable to all military members worldwide

    For more information on the UCMJ:

    And for the record as an atheist in the Navy for 20 years I always resented the (vaguely Christian) prayers that were part of almost every official ceremony but never had the courage to do anything about it. If its someone retirement and they request the chaplain do a prayer, that’s OK but at general ceremonies like graduations, no way.

  12. 12
    Greg Laden

    This is very very encouraging. This outcome could not have happened in a world not perturbed by uppity atheists. Yay for uppity atheists!

  13. 13

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