In a news release dated July 23, 2008, Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced that it has asked the Department of Defense (DoD) to investigate the "Free Day Away" program at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
In its letter to acting DoD Inspector General Gordon Heddell, Americans United (AU) notes a previous investigation of "Free Day Away," conducted by the Fort Leonard Wood Inspector General. That Inspector General determined that this clearly coercive and, according to reports from numerous soldiers, unavoidable religious program was voluntary and did not violate the rights of the soldiers. Obviously, as AU points out in its letter, the base Inspector General investigating a program that is not only condoned, but promoted, by the same base commander he reports to raises objectivity concerns, which is why AU is asking for an investigation by the presumably more objective DoD Inspector General.
But, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has learned from experience that pursuing complaints of religious discrimination, coercion, or harassment through any military channel is all but pointless, whether a chain of command, an Equal Opportunity Officer, or even he DoD Inspector General. This is why MRFF is pursuing its case against the Department of Defense in the federal courts.
MRFF did get the DoD Inspector General to investigate the participation of military officers who appeared in a Campus Crusade for Christ Christian Embassy promotional video, and although issuing a 47-page report finding seven officers, four of them generals, guilty of violating a number of military regulations and recommending that "appropriate corrective action" be taken, not a single one of the officers was punished. In fact, two of them were soon promoted. Maj. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, Jr., a brigadier general at the time of the Christian Embassy scandal, remained in his position of Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point until May 2, 2008. His promotion to major general was confirmed by Senate on April 29, 2008, and he has now been appointed to the prestigious position of Commanding General of the 25th Infantry Division. Col. Lucious Morton, a lieutenant colonel when he appeared in the Christian Embassy video, was selected to attend the U.S. Army War College, and was promoted to colonel on October 1, 2007, less than three months after the DoD Inspector General's report. Preston M. "Pete" Geren, who, as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense was not subject to military regulations when he appeared in the Christian Embassy video, was confirmed as Secretary of the Army by the Senate on July 16, 2007.The DoD Inspector General's report also completely evaded the promotion of religion issue, instead watering their investigation down and finding the officers guilty of endorsing a "non-federal entity."
As MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein often says regarding the "pernicious and pervasive pattern and practice" of constitutional violations by our military, a pattern and practice that has become ingrained in every level of our armed forces, from Junior ROTC all the way up to the Pentagon itself, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (Who will guard the guards?)
The reality is that, due to the overwhelming fundamentalist Christian presence and influence in our military, chances are that whatever military channel is employed to investigate a complaint regarding religious freedom, that channel will be blocked at some stage by someone whose religious mission will override any measure of objectivity. With 14,000 of our military officers belonging to the Officers' Christian Fellowship, an organization with chapters on virtually every U.S. military installation worldwide, and a mission to "Create a spiritually transformed U.S. military, with Ambassadors for Christ in uniform, empowered by the Holy Spirit," how many chains of command are likely not to have one of these officers somewhere among its links?
The "Free Day Away" program, one of the most outrageous of all the coercive and unconstitutional programs foisted upon our military's newest soldiers, is all too familiar to MRFF.
Mikey Weinstein began receiving complaints of the religious coercion and deception embodied in the "Free Day Away" program in the spring of 2005, even before he officially founded MRFF. After Weinstein and his son Curtis, then an Air Force Academy cadet, were interviewed by Good Morning America in February 2005 about the harassment and religious coercion faced by non-Christian cadets at the Academy, the calls started coming in. The lawsuit filed by Weinstein at that time over the constitutional violations at the Air Force Academy was dismissed because of a technicality, but it was while investigating what was happening at the Academy that Weinstein discovered this was not an isolated problem, but a military-wide pattern, and that an organization dedicated solely to the protection of religious freedom in the military was desperately needed. In December 2005, Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate, a White House Counsel during the Reagan administration, and former general counsel to Texas billionaire and two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot, founded MRFF, an organization which, in its short two and a half year history has been contacted by nearly 9,000 service members and veterans, a surprising 96% of whom are Christians -- just not the right kind of Christians for today's military.
To date, MRFF has received over 300 complaints about "Free Day Away," not only from basic trainees who were subjected to the program, but from Fort Leonard Wood drill sergeants, various other NCOs and officers (including a chaplain), as well as residents of the nearby town where the program takes place. One soldier even contacted Weinstein on behalf of his entire company.
As I mentioned in a post here last week about the Justice Department's motion to dismiss MRFF's lawsuit against the Department of Defense, Specialist Jeremy Hall, co-plaintiff in the suit, went through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in 2004, and is among the thousands of soldiers who have been forced to attend "Free Day Away" each year. Basic trainees who are held over due to injuries have it even worse, sometimes being subjected to this program multiple times while waiting to resume their training.
As I wrote in my previous post:
According to the motion to dismiss, "The Complaint in this case likewise fails to connect its nebulous 'pattern and practice' allegations to Specialist Hall in any manner. Plaintiffs allege no facts to demonstrate that Specialist Hall has ever personally been subjected to any of these practices..." No problem there. I can think of several examples off the top of my head in which Specialist Hall was personally subjected to some of the most outrageous practices that MRFF will be demonstrating in "its nebulous 'pattern and practice' allegations." One of the most grievous of these practices, which Hall was subjected to during his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, is the "Free Day Away" program.
The "event description" in a basic training schedule from Fort Leonard Wood describes "Free Day Away," which all trainees attend during their fifth week of training, as follows: "Soldiers spend the day away from Fort Leonard Wood and training in the town of Lebanon. Free Day Away is designed as a stress relief that helps Soldiers return to training re-motivated and rejuvenated." What they leave out is that this day is actually spent at the Tabernacle Baptist Church, and includes a mandatory fire and brimstone fundamentalist religious service. The soldiers don't even know that this part of their "training" is run by a church until they're being loaded onto the church's buses that come to pick them up. This program does anything but re-motivate and rejuvenate many of the soldiers. In fact, we have reports from parents of soldiers who were doing just fine in basic training until this free day, but were suddenly depressed and questioning if they'd made the right decision in joining the Army immediately after it. Apparently, being told you're going to burn eternally in the fires of hell isn't exactly the great re-motivator and rejuvenator that the powers that be at Fort Leonard Wood think it is.
MRFF has investigated thousands of complaints from service members stationed throughout the United States and overseas, and in doing so has identified a number of installations that are "hot spots" -- installations that repeatedly appear on the radar regardless of the specific issue being investigated. Fort Leonard Wood holds the distinction of being one of MRFF's top three Army hot spots. As I wrote in another recent post, this is the same installation that allowed the filming of basic trainees for a Christian concert special for the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a special that also included an interview with then base commander Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp, Jr. MRFF has demanded an investigation of this incident, as well as including it in its lawsuit, along with "Free Day Away" and countless other equally egregious constitutional violations uncovered over the past two and a half years.
Watch a "Free Day Away" promotional video. (It's actually a video of the promotional video being shown at another church on June 25.) This video features basic trainees violating the very same regulations that the DoD Inspector General determined to have been violated by the officers who appeared in the Christian Embassy video.