CNN: Atheist soldier claims harassment

JUNCTION CITY, Kansas (AP) — Like hundreds of young men joining the Army in recent years, Jeremy Hall professes a desire to serve his country while it fights terrorism.

But the short and soft-spoken specialist is at the center of a legal controversy. He has filed a lawsuit alleging he’s been harassed and his constitutional rights have been violated because he doesn’t believe in God. The suit names Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

“I’m not in it for cash,” Hall said. “I want no one else to go what I went through.”

Known as “the atheist guy,” Hall has been called immoral, a devil worshipper and — just as severe to some soldiers — gay, none of which, he says, is true. Hall even drove fellow soldiers to church in Iraq and paused while they prayed before meals.

“I see a name and rank and United States flag on their shoulder. That’s what I believe everyone else should see,” he said.

Hall, 23, was raised in a Protestant family in North Carolina and dropped out of school. It wasn’t until he joined the Army that he began questioning religion, eventually deciding he couldn’t follow any faith.

But he feared how that would look to other soldiers.

“I was ashamed to say that I was an atheist,” Hall said.

It eventually came out in Iraq in 2007, when he was in a firefight. Hall was a gunner on a Humvee, which took several bullets in its protective shield. Afterward, his commander asked whether he believed in God, Hall said.

“I said, ‘No, but I believe in Plexiglas,”‘ Hall said. “I’ve never believed I was going to a happy place. You get one life. When I die, I’m worm food.” . . .

This story doesn’t surprise me. I’ve seen similiar scenarios through the eyes of my clients, who have been discriminated in little and big ways for having views that are unpopular when it comes to faith issues. SPC Hall in this story caught flack for being an atheist, but I’ve had clients catch grief for being Wiccans, for being Baptist (but not believing in war), and I’ve had clients catch flack just for questioning the theology that is pushed on them by the chaplains.

I think it is critical that the military follow the first amendment on both of the religion clauses — (1) free exercise — servicemembers should have the right to practice their faith as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others (a commander should not be proselytizing subordinates, at least when he or she is on the clock, even if proseltization is a religious duty for the commander), and (2) establishment – the military should not respect one religion over another, or push servicemembers to practice any faith.

And I think it should go without saying (but apparently it needs to be said), that the freedom of religion encompasses the freedom not to believe.

Anyway I’ll be rooting for SPC Hall in this fight.

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