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.”