Earlier this week an atheist in the U.S. military filed a lawsuit claiming that the Army had violated his right to be an atheist. Only the Associated Press has covered this very interesting situation. What was produced only gives one side of the story partly because the military, as one would expect, refused to comment on pending legal matters.
But even if the military did comment on the story, I doubt they would have said anything of significance. The story could have conveyed a more thorough and balanced message if the reporter did not rely so much on the papers filed in the lawsuit:
Hall alleges he was denied his constitutional right to hold a meeting to discuss atheism while he was deployed in Iraq with his military police unit. He says in the new complaint that his promotion was blocked after the commander of the 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley sent an e-mail post-wide saying Hall had sued.
Fort Riley spokeswoman Alison Kohler said the post “can’t comment on ongoing legal matters” and offered no further statement.
According to the lawsuit, Hall was counseled by his platoon sergeant after being informed that his promotion was blocked. He says the sergeant explained that Hall would be “unable to put aside his personal convictions and pray with his troops” and would have trouble bonding with them if promoted to a leadership position.
Hall responded that religion is not a requirement of leadership, even though the sergeant wondered how he had rights if atheism wasn’t a religion. Hall said atheism is protected under the Army’s chaplain’s manual.
Whenever you see someone claiming a right to something, it’s very important for that person to be required to identify the source of that right. Last time I checked, the First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establish of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” What is said in the Army’s chaplain’s manual is a far cry from rights established in the Constitution.
The big question for the reporters covering this lawsuit should be is atheism an establishment of religion? Does an atheist exercise religion? I’ve always said that being an atheist takes a great amount of faith, but that’s my personal opinion. That doesn’t give this soldier 5 votes on the Supreme Court, which is what you need to create a right based on the Constitution.
I don’t know the answer to this. There may not be a clear answer. Calling one of the many First Amendment law experts out there would be a good place to start getting some answer. A broader legal perspective on the First Amendment rights being claimed here would do a lot to balance this story.