Fort Gordon stops making soldiers do yard work for Catholics

I’d like to thank Fort Gordon, GA leadership for the rapid about-face. Only a week ago American Atheists and Freedom From Religion Foundation demanded that the US Constitution be upheld for soldiers attending the Advanced Leadership Course (ALC). Hundreds of soldiers were ordered to clean up a Catholic organizations yard – also known as “area beautification.”

This was off-post, during the duty day and in uniform. The time period this was supposed to take place was over several months! An atheist soldier wrote to me asking how to deal with this issue. In reality, simply contacting me had already set the ball in motion. I reached out to FFRF, and together we issued a coordinated legal / media outreach.

To Fort Gordon’s credit, they acted pretty fast. Yesterday, I got this short message from a foxhole atheist stationed there:

NAME / RANK WITHHELD

That program with the Catholic Social Services has ceased.

Awesome.

I remember calling their Operations Center for a courtesy head’s up. The officer on the phone was a bit taken aback at first. I felt bad because he was in the middle of a shift change, and my phone call made him fill out all sorts of paperwork. We talked for 20 minutes and it was very cordial and I had a feeling that everything was going to work out fine by the end of it. Thank you, Fort Gordon for doing the right thing!

Thank you to my peers at American Atheists and the awesome resources and legal team at FFRF. Looking forward to fixing these issues together – one at a time if we have to.

Lastly, I’d like to thank all of you who responded to my call to action. Plenty of you called / emailed press and others – and this certainly helped. The foxhole atheist community needs people like you to speak for them. You stood and delivered. I appreciate it every time you come through for us. I take out my megaphone when I’ve exhausted other means, and because of you it really works.

About Justin Griffith
  • Pierce R. Butler

    Are the ALC soldiers now assigned to clean up other off-base spaces, or can they now spend their time on actual military or personal business?

    • Paul Weaver

      This.

      We are still fighting one significant war, and very involved in a number of smaller actions. We’re in the midst of downsizing, and of shifting focus to regain proficiencies lost in the past decade. There is simply no excuse for using valuable Soldier duty time in community service activities – training should and must be the primary focus.

      Trite though it may sound, people’s lives really do depend on it.

      Paul Weaver

      SFC, USA (RET)

    • Justin Griffith

      Not sure just yet.

  • smhll

    This is excellent.

  • beerslayer

    A couple of thoughts that have occurred to me, Justin:

    1) From reading your blog and your posts over the last several months, a totally unexpected picture of the military has formed in my mind: that of an organization that genuinely wants to do the right thing, and simply needs a good reason to do so. They seem to recognize when they’re doing something wrong and be willing to fix it, which is as fair as one can reasonably expect. Is that an accurate picture, or have I missed something obvious?

    2) I wonder if the military brass that put this thing in motion to begin with might have been goaded into it by some civilian organization (governmental or otherwise) against their collective will. They might have been genuinely glad to have a good excuse to say “No, we’re not doing this any more. Clean up your own damned mess.”

    • N. Nescio

      I am very curious as to why that organization was unable to find local members of the Catholic Church to do yardwork for free?

  • Ysidro

    I’m glad this worked out. The religous angle (I keep typing angel…sheesh) was upsetting.

    But you know what else gets to me? Where are all the fiscal conservatives decrying this use of the military’s time? With all sorts of support jobs going to private contracts, why were soliders being wasted on this? If there’s that much free time (and I’m sure there isn’t, so bear with my rhetoric for a moment) then maybe we shouldn’t be wasting money on contactors.

  • Mike de Fleuriot

    You know what I like, is the way you guys have taken Foxhole Atheist and made it a positive word. It’s gay all over again.

    Thanks.

    • David Hart

      In fairness, the religious claim was always that foxhole atheists didn’t exist, not that they did and were bad people:-P

  • Leslie

    Unfortunately, this is inaccurate information. Catholic Social Service is a non-profit organization in Augusta, GA. They have a contract with PAO at Fort Gordon. All soldiers that attend ALC Army wide, not just at Fort Gordon, are required to do so many hours of community service as part of the course. The CSS is one organization soldiers in this course at Fort Gordon can work with to meet those requirements.

    If a soldier who is in the ALC is complaining about having to do community service for this organization, he needs a more justifiable reason than “I am an atheist.” The organization services all individuals in the community, not a church. This complaint has no substance.

    • Justin Griffith

      They have a contract with PAO at Fort Gordon.

      Bullshit. Public Affairs does not have contracts with any non-journalist type of NGO. If you still think you’re statement is accurate, let me know. I’ll send a FOIA request to expose intense violations of military regulations.

      All soldiers that attend ALC Army wide, not just at Fort Gordon, are required to do so many hours of community service as part of the course. The CSS is one organization soldiers in this course at Fort Gordon can work with to meet those requirements.

      The CSS was one organization…

      If a soldier who is in the ALC is complaining about having to do community service for this organization, he needs a more justifiable reason than “I am an atheist.”

      That was not the given reason in the complaint, and a team of lawyers drafted several reasons. Your dishonest attempts to color the situation will probably work with your friends and peers. Save it for them.

      The organization services all individuals in the community, not a church.

      Perhaps CSS could employ some of the people they’re trying to help. Pay them to mow their lawns and pick up their trash.


      This complaint has no substance.

      protip: read the complaint first, perhaps?

      excerpt:

      Given their name, we hardly need point out that Catholic Social Services (“CSS”), whose slogan is “In Every Season God is With Us,” is a religious organization. Their symbol is the Christian cross with the initials CSS. According to their policy statement (enclosed), “all services provided require participation in Catholic Social Services Case Management.” This “case management” is further described as a “mentor-like relationship” where they “strive to facilitate client growth, self-understanding, and hope.” The evidence that CSS is proselytizing to people who need their services is contained in their own policy statements (enclosed).
      As you are no doubt aware, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from taking action that will “aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.” Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 16 (1947). Providing services free of charge is no different than allocating funds. The Supreme Court has held that allocating public funds in direct aid to particular religious institutions is unconstitutional. See Committee For Public Ed. and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist, 413 U.S. 756 (1973).

      CSS no doubt provides some needed services in the community, but they do so in the name of their religion and with an eye toward winning converts. It is inappropriate, and constitutionally problematic, for the government to be subsidizing this religious organization.

      This situation is not analogous to our government contracting with a charity to provide secular services. In this case, the government — in the form of the U.S. Army — is giving a direct, substantive benefit to a religious organization. Compelling U.S. soldiers of many different faiths or no faith at all to support a religion is a violation of their freedoms of conscience and contrary to the First Amendment.

      The nonreligious population of the U.S. is 15% (American Religious Identification Survey 2008) and 23.4% of all military personnel identified as atheist, agnostic or have no religious preference (2010 MAAF study based on Department of Defense data). Fully 81% of members of the U.S. military are not Catholic. Department of Defense, Pay Grade and Religion of Active Duty Personnel By Service (excluding Coast Guard) as of May 31, 2009, Active Duty Personnel Inventory File. It is wholly inappropriate for soldiers to be commanded to support a religion they do not adhere to. As the Supreme Court said, “at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise…” Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 578 (1992).

      • Sarah

        Hahaha you Americans and Atheists are so fucking whiny! “Oh my heavens! By doing this yardwork we’re “subsidizing this religious organization!! Oh my days!.

        Man Justin, you’ve done some good work, and defending some things that really matter, but this is bitchery on a technical level. Talk about rules-lawyering. I’m sure you’ll continue to take unimportant things like this seriously – but it will still never matter, and only other things you do will have any effect – the only result of childish tantrums like this is that people lose sympathy with you over your real problems. Not “Oh NOES brushing this yard might have helped the relibulous!!!”

      • Pierce R. Butler

        Sarah – Seeing as how you prefer not to sweat the small stuff, and to consider adherence to US Army regulations as “unimportant” and “childish”, I strongly suggest you not seek public-sector employment, particularly in military service.

        You may now resume your regularly scheduled trolling.

      • beerslayer

        “It’s only a little tiny right. Insignificant, really. You’ll never miss it.”

        So says every totalitarian government, everywhere, throughout human history.

      • Sarah

        @Pierce, you’re obviously a barracks room lawyer. That’s what they all say. “I’m just following regs Sarge” – it’s the definition of petty and pointless. – maybe this does count as “subsidizing” – but if so it’s something so minor and insignificant that it really doesn’t matter – only someone with a chip on their shoulder would bitch about it – and it would make people realise that they’re bitchy and petty and take the rest of their concerns less seriously as a result.

      • Sarah

        @beer – yep, yardwork. It’s the start of totalitarian dystopia. That’s definitely not paranoid and ridiculous.

      • beerslayer

        Way to completely miss the point, Sarah. Nice going.

        If they asked for volunteers for this project, without threat of punishment or other onerous duties for those who do not choose to volunteer, I’d have far less (though not no) problem with this situation.

        When they make it MANDATORY (no “opt-out”) for soldiers to perform yardwork (or any other kind of work) on behalf of a church, in direct violation of the Constitution, that’s when there’s a problem.

        Substitute “mosque” or “Scientology org” for “church” and see if you still have no problem with it.

        If you can’t see any problem, you really ought to open your eyes.


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