Under the radar is a report that an atheist’s religious (or non-religious) freedoms are being restricted by the military in Iraq.

U.S. Army Spc. Jeremy Hall and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, or MRFF, founded in 2005, filed a lawsuit against Maj. Paul Welborne and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, purporting that Hall, as an atheist, was being harassed for not being a Christian.

The MRFF believes this prejudicial treatment of non-Christians is so pervading that MSNBC notes, “The suit also alleges that Gates permits a military culture in which officers are encouraged to pressure soldiers to adopt and espouse fundamentalist Christian beliefs.”

Theists in foxholes?

Even if Spc. Hall’s discrimination case proves to be true, it’s a far stretch to extrapolate that situation or even others to conclude that Gates permits a military culture in which religious prejudice is encouraged. It’s one thing to cite select discrimination cases; it’s quite another to prove a universal, unconstitutional pattern in the military. But that is the MRFF’s aim: “to show there is a pattern and practice of constitutionally impermissible promotions of religious beliefs within the Department of Defense.”

The question is: Is the MRFF basing such a goal on a preponderance of evidence or have they already drawn the conclusion and are going out hunting for alleged data to support it? As a fascinating twist in the case, Lt. Col. James Hutton, a spokesman for multinational forces in Iraq recently reported, “Several media reports list a person named Maj. Paul Welborne as having been involved in this situation. To date, we have not located any soldier by that name.”

Christians’ Constitutional rights on and off the battlefield

I’ve met and gotten to know hundreds of officers and chaplains on and off the battlefield, those who are very dedicated to both God and country. I’ve observed their faiths and oversight of troops firsthand. And I must say: to accuse the American military of being a fundamentalist factory or Christian Taliban is going way, way overboard! From my own enlistment in the Air Force 40 years ago to my recent tours in Iraq, I have never once seen Christianity mandated to anyone in any way. As spokeswoman Cynthia Smith responded, the Department of Defense “places a high value on the rights of members of the Armed Forces to observe the tenets of their respective religions.”

By all means, religious plurality should be allowed wherever America governs. But that allowance should not morph into an arena in which Christian officers and chaplains’ First Amendment freedom of speech and religion is inadvertently restricted. They should meet the particular religious needs of the troops, but they should not have to cater to everyone at the cost of losing their own particular religious distinction or preference.

If Christian officers’ or chaplains’ convictions prompt them to help a soldier cope with war by turning to the comfort of the Psalms, they should not be penalized or labeled as intolerant or exclusive for doing so. If they want to pray with troops before going into battle, they should be not prohibited from doing so – “in Jesus’ name.” They should not be hindered from handing out Bibles without offering Qurans at the same time. That is their Constitutional right!

And if civilian or nonprofit groups like Military Ministry, the Military Mission’s Network or churches partnering with them want to support the Christian ministry on the battlefield, it is their Constitutional right as well. Just as it is mine to encourage people to join them!

Christianity is not the enemy

The fact is, our country is more obsessed with highlighting Christian fundamentalist abuses than we are the plots and ploys of Muslim extremists who are attacking our troops.

And what does this MRFF lawsuit indirectly say about our Christian chaplains? If the military is placing undue pressure on our troops to convert to fundamentalist Christianity, that makes our chaplains the “Taliban field commanders”? Will we next indict or subpoena the chaplaincy as unconstitutional? How degrading for those religious patriots who place themselves in harm’s way to help our troops!

As I explained in my last article, chaplains go out to the front lines bearing no weapons. And they are some of the most despised by Muslim extremists, since the latter regard this war as a jihad or religious war against the West and Christianity.

Christianity is not our enemy, but an aid to our troops. Have we forgotten that? That is why, since the Revolutionary War, America has employed and deployed chaplains to the field – and they could use a few more. It’s great to see more and more giving them their due recognition.

‘Ministering spirits sent to serve’

As with our other troops, there are many examples of bravery, heroism and sacrifice among our chaplains. Lt. Cmdr. John J. Gayton and Lt. Joseph Buenviaje, CHC, USN, serve as excellent ones. On April 20, 2007, Chaplains Gayton and Buenviaje, Catholic and Protestant chaplains ministering side-by-side, were attacked along with other service men and women while fulfilling visitation requests by those on the front lines of battle.

I must let Chaplain Gayton tell the story in his own words – something which still sends shivers up my spine!

    After sharing communion with the troops and blessing them and asking God to dispatch His angels to guard them from harm … Suddenly, an explosion hit us with great force and a cloud of dust and debris began to fall in front of us. … the overpass had been destroyed, and the [operational post] was demolished…. some of the Marines had survived and were badly wounded. … I immediately joined Chaplain Buenviaje at the side of Lance Cpl. May who had been blasted off the north side of the overpass to the embankment below. He was comforting the Marine and trying to keep him conscious. I helped to remove some of the debris from his lower extremities to assess if he had any traumatic injuries.

    About 30 feet short of that, RP2 (Religious Programs Spc. Second Class) Keene had reached another Marine who had been thrown to the highway below. I rushed over to his aid. We were in a very exposed position, so the RP took a defensive position as I attended to Lance Cpl. David Volk. He was having severe pain in his right leg, which was obviously fractured. … He asked me not to leave him. I remained at his side and gave him assurances as well as a prayer and blessing. He was one of the Marines who had just received holy communion minutes before the blast. I kneeled over him to cover him and shield his face from the sun and so that I could maintain eye contact with him and keep him talking and alert. Keene ran to make a quick assessment of [a civilian] Iraqi vehicle and discovered one person killed in action and the other severely wounded. I debated going to provide first aid but made the call to stay with Lance Cpl. Volk until the [helicopter evacuation] arrived to give assistance [at which point Gayton gave them assistance].

    Moments later, we received radio communication of shots fired and that one Marine was hit (by sniper fire) on top of the overpass. All the personnel from our convoy had returned to vehicles and we maintained the security perimeter until we were replaced by Fox Company. … [When it was all said and done, we also ministered to] the Marines and sailors involved in the reaction team and the medical response team as well as members of the command staff.

Wow! What’s even more amazing is that Chaplain Gayton later learned a piece of shrapnel had lacerated the back of his neck, inches from resulting in a fatality. And he continued to minister despite his wounds!

With tears in my eyes, two Bible verses come to mind: “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” And Jesus’ words, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”

So what was I saying about a lawsuit accusing our military officers and secretary of defense of “pressuring soldiers to adopt and espouse fundamentalist Christian beliefs”? Give me a break! Give them one!

(If you’d like to protect our chaplains’ freedom to pray, sign the American Center for Law and Justice’s “Petition to Protect Military Prayer.”)

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