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Military Atheists -- Under-Reported Fight for Fairness

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The First Amendment gets my awed support three times over. As a U.S. citizen anyway... as a journalist... and as an immigrant from England.

It's piquant for me that England's enforced conformity of religious belief was what drove my 1620 predecessors to make their transatlantic escape. And that such religious oppression was so specifically outlawed 170 years later in the Bill of Rights, along with any attack on freedom of expression generally.

So it's been intriguing for me lately to follow at close quarters a First Amendment story that has not made the front pages, or figured on national news broadcasts.

The freedom to practice any faith -- a freedom that of course embraces the holding of no faith at all: atheism, in other words -- has freshly become a pressing issue in, of all intriguing places, the United States military.

Unconstitutional though it may appear, it's a pretty universally acknowledged truth that Christianity -- and evangelical protestant Christianity at that -- is what dominates the religious outlook of America's armed forces.

That's not official of course... but circumstantial evidence is hard to avoid. By statute there is religious provision for our men and women in uniform -- the military Chaplaincy itself, comprising a force of 3,000 officers. Ninety percent of them are Christian, a much higher proportion than rank-and-file service members (polls indicate at most 70 percent of those serving will profess such belief, strongly or tokenly).

More concretely, a so-called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Test (fairly newly-imposed, since 2009) is now deeply rankling troops who don't hold a religious belief.

Remarkably, the CSF test (designed, we are told, to assess in total a soldier's resiliency, and capacity to withstand stress and demonstrate leadership) attempts to gauge what's called his or her "spiritual fitness" as well as physical and mental capacities.

Atheists in the military -- counted conservatively at about 6 percent of the Armed Forces' total strength -- are getting ever angrier at having to agree or disagree with statements like:

"I am a spiritual person."

"In difficult times, I pray or meditate."

"I often find comfort in my religion or spiritual beliefs."

Atheists fear, understandably, that they're bound to be found 'spiritually unfit.' And in turn such 'deficiencies' will hold them back from promotion, or acceptance into elite units or into training programs that could also advance them.

Their growing campaign against such perceived discrimination, and for greater recognition and respect within the armed forces, led recently to an unprecedented event -- an atheist festival, called Rock Beyond Belief -- on the grounds of Fort Bragg army base, right in the heart of the bible-belt of North Carolina.

Perhaps ironically in view of America's historical role as refuge for England's religious dissidents, the event's main speaker was the England's leading international crusader for non-belief, the evolutionary biologist Prof Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion.

When I interviewed him in the unlikely setting, for him, of Fort Bragg's Main Post Parade-Ground (revealingly the scene 18 months ago of a more home-grown, God-fearing event organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) Dawkins told me: "This country does have a very deeply built-in and deeply-felt separation between Church and State. So I think it's particularly important that this message that we're delivering today should be delivered to the American forces."

My journalistic venture into this area has been educational. I know that religion, and indeed atheism for that matter, is often a sensitive issue -- but it was remarkable how suddenly and completely the cone of silence fell upon base commanders, the chaplaincy corps, the Army Department and the Department of Defense, as I tried to raise my questions.

My report, with correspondent Lucky Severson, is carried on PBS this weekend by the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly program (time-slots vary by local public station). Please take a look and see how we fare, up against such institutional reluctance to discuss questions of religious freedom.

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.