U.S. Marine briefly arrested for not attending “all faiths” religious service

U.S. Marine briefly arrested for not attending “all faiths” religious service September 28, 2011

The following is sent in by David Z. – A former Marine Corps NCO. My contributions are clearly marked.

First, I want to say that the Rock Beyond Belief concert is an awesome idea.  I wish the best for you, and I hope it turns out great.  I might try to come to it, if an Honorably Discharged Marine is allowed to come. [Edit – Justin Griffith: Of course!]

I read a story you posted about a Sgt who wore a Bad Religion shirt and at the bottom you asked for people to share their stories.

Boot Camp’s “Optional” Religious Service

July, 7th 1998 I went to Marine Corps Basic Training in San Diego, CA.  Shortly after being assigned to Platoon 1103 and meeting our Drill Instructors, the first Sunday of my enlistment rolled around.  We sat in one of the theaters and listened to a Chaplain speak, telling us that they offered services for almost any form of religion and that after he was finished we were to get in line for our appropriate religion.  He also said that there was a non-denominational group that would discuss our relationship with god.  Lastly he said that we did not have to attend any church services if we did not want to.

I looked for the “not attending church” line, but could not find it.  I was instead ordered to line up in the non-denominational line.

I sounded off, “Sir, This Recruit requests permission to not attend church services, Sir!”

Another platoon’s Drill Instructor interrogated and berated me for quite some time as I continued to respond with that phrase.  Finally he gave in and took me back to the barracks where my Drill Instructor did the same.  Eventually he too gave in and put me to work cleaning different areas of the barracks.

My Senior Drill Instructor (a church choir singer and devout christian) was then informed.  He attempted the interrogation and berating, having the same effect.  Later he had both a private and a public “Hats off” more polite conversation urging me to attend church services.  Again I sounded off with the phrase that became my mantra.  “Sir, This Recruit requests permission to not attend church services, Sir!”  He then seemed to want nothing to do with me since I wouldn’t “Do this for him.”

At least he stopped trying to force me to go.

***Justin Griffith here – I simply have to reply to this before moving on. This same theme has been virtually universal across all services and all stories that I’ve heard from fellow atheists. It certainly happened to me too. There are two choices we can make when faced with this in boot camp.

1) Clean up and get yelled at every week – a punishment for not believing in god.  2) Go to a religious service and tune it out.

I tried both. I was not allowed to write letters, sleep, or even sit down. If for even one second I wasn’t actively cleaning, the Drill Sergeants would throw sand across the (freshly) waxed floor, or otherwise punish me. They get really creative. I was a special case because just before graduation, I was seriously injured. This extended my stay from the standard 9 weeks to a grueling 30-something weeks long.

Drill Instructor Father Guido SarducciI eventually chose to go to the religious service that was farthest away. There were two that I could take a bus across post, lengthening the total time away to 2-3 hours. The two choices were Mormon and Spanish Protestant. Many of the Mormons had bulging pockets with their garments (‘magic underwear’ in harsh terms).

I chose the Spanish one because it all seemed like gibberish anyway. It was funny actually, because I met a few others who were doing the exact same thing as me, and we all sat in the back. The entire service was in Spanish and none of us in the back row spoke the language.

We got to dance around to the peculiar Spanish church songs. We heard the excited and rapid-fire babbling in a foreign tongue. Every once in a while a very loud voice from across the room would say “Si, SENIOR!” And we would all laugh like a bastard, but quietly enough not to alert the people around us.

Okay, back to David Z.’s letter

ARRESTED for not going to “all-faiths” religious service.

After basic I had another run in.  I was in Marine Combat training (that is where they send the POGs before MOS school).

Some grunt corporal was in charge of us and ordered us to line up for an “all faiths” religious service.  I told the corporal that I would be unable to attend because the service could not possibly include my “faith.”

He then asked what my religion was.  To avoid outing myself, I said it was a secret. He and the other boots had a laugh as he said, “I thought the point of a religion was to try to convert everyone to it.”

I guess he didn’t pick up on the hints that I wasn’t a christian.

He ordered me to get in line again.  I disobeyed and went to sit on my pack until the service was over.  He came back very pissed. He arrested me (not that I think he had the authority to) for disobeying a direct order.  He even Mirandized me.

I saw him discussing this with some other Marines and eventually he came back and told me to return to my platoon.  I assume he was informed that his order was unlawful, and he could not take action against me for it.

***End of David’s Letter***

Holy Shit. That’s pretty intense.

I’d like to thank David for sharing this experience. I hope it opens people’s eyes to the reality that many (most?) of us experience as atheists in the U.S. Military. Notice: He did not back down. He was right. He kept his cool despite injustice. He eventually ‘won’ his right to not participate in religious services.

This whole situation underscores a point that people really need to understand. From day one, we learn to be scared, defensive, and protective of our rights. As you can see, David was pretty ballsy and consistent – yet he still felt at one point that he did not want to tell his peers / superiors that he was an atheist.

Somehow the word atheist paints targets on our backs. Be it for more proselytism, or even for threats of violence – the atmosphere of fear is instilled at the very beginning.

Note: David has at least one more story coming out here in the next few days, and it’s pretty crazy. I’ve had quite a few people send in stories- good, bad, and ugly. Please keep them coming, and please remind me if you’ve already sent something and I never got back to you. David had to. (sorry about that – this deployment is pretty unpredictable.)

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  • Daniel

    David’s letter reminds me of other ways they tried to force religion on us. I went through Basic in 1991, and what’s funny is that I still have my little heirloom from there, my original dog tags. During our in-processing when it came down to getting your tags, they would not put atheist or agnostic on them. They said some insanely stupid stuff about how Atheism and Agnosticism were not recognized as faiths “Well Duh” so they were not allowed to put put them on dog tags. So this meant that if you did not claim any religion, they just stamped NO-REL-PREF on the bottom of your tags. It was kind of as if they could just throw any religion at you and you be good with it. I really think the truth to the matter is that if at that time, you went through Basic in the Bible Belt, they just didn’t want to accept the idea not everyone believes in their god. And believe it or not, they actually had a list of religions that were “Acceptable For Dog Tags”. I know now things have changed, but back then, I was a 17 year old kid who still had to finish High School, so I really wasn’t going to debate them on it. And if they were to try it with today, I would laugh in their faces and punch in ATHEIST myself.

  • Sean O’Doherty

    Same here, no Atheist available, just NO REL PREF. I went to the Prot service offered at the inprocessing center at Fort Jackson (I was raised UCC and thought it would get me out of cleaning the barracks). What I got was beyond anything I’d ever seen at church. People speaking in tounges, dancing in the aisles, running back and forth asking those of us with the shocked looks if we needed saving. Before that I had no idea what Pentacostal was…

  • Steven Parradee

    I’ve still got my original 1996 NRP dogtags; In 2005-ish I finally got my (USAF-issued!) Atheist tags. I was surprised it actually happened. Wear them all the time in uniform, now.

    I went to the chapel my first weekend in basic… I don’t remember much about it, but I stayed at the barracks the rest of the time. I didn’t get any grief over it, at least.

  • khms

    Former draftee, German air force, here. Around 1980. I’m trying to remember anything about religious services, but nothing comes to mind. I suspect they thought we could look after that on our own time (or not, as in my case). But I really cannot remember any details.

    I don’t remember what was on the dog tags, but that wouldn’t mean anything anyway – I’m pretty sure any such field would have contained “ev.”, one of the two standard choices (the other being “cath.”); that’s the label I was born with, I never believed any of it, I didn’t even think about changing it until years later. From which I conclude that the reported numbers are quite a bit larger than what people actually believe. Not that the reported numbers are all that high.

    It’s just that over here, what you believe is mostly your personal business – I think there was only one occasion, in over fifty years, that someone actually tried to figure out if they could “save” me … pretty much unknown over here. When I tell people what it’s like in the US (based from what I read at places like here), the common reaction is disbelief.

    Though, listening to radio interviews, one could get the impression that every artist is a believer …

  • Ferrous Patella


    Was not his DI an NCO?

  • Pete Mockridge


    I was just browsing through your blog. I had the same thing on my dogtags at the Navy’s Great Lakes bootcamp in ’94, and all through my 4 years of active service.

    I had to laugh because it dawned on me reading the story that I actually wish it read PREF-NO-REL.

  • Len

    Can’t you just say that you’re a Satanist?

  • Allen Richards

    I had the same experience with church in basic training. While attending a church service was by no means mandatory, the people who didn’t go got stuck on details such as buffing floors and cutting grass. So I would attend the Mormon service, because it was three hours long. There were also many people who attended the Jewish service, because they gave out pizza. Although I’m an atheist, I didn’t mind attending church in basic training, because it was a break from the constant yelling and everyone was really friendly. But ultimately, it was just a break for me.

  • Travis

    Man I was in basic 8 years a go and the story is the same, after 2 weeks of getting worked to the bone while the others went to no Drill-land I said that I can’t change the Army while I am in basic, so I just went to the muslim services. Figured I heard all the crazy I could from the different christians, why not have a taste of something a little exotic (and not that watered down crazy from asia). Instead it was like a sterilization chamber with a Muslim chaplin who, in 5 weeks, I think managed to relay a paragraph or two in total from any Muslim religious text, but did tell all the foriegn girls (wierd thing no male muslim recruits in Fort Jackson, at least not while I was their) how God loved them and cared about their feelings and how they were doing the right thing. But the girls were pretty, and after a month the Drill Seargent gave in and said I didn’t have to go anymore, even let me sneak a newspaper from the PX, as long as noone else knew, which was awesome until the lead drill found it and took it a way, which sent me one last time to Muslim no Drill-land, and probably got someone yelled at who was in fact doing the right thing. (seriously why can they have bibles, but I can’t have a science/history book. I mean they say their book is science too?)

    So what do you do if the very home of TRADOC is still enforcing the punishment of non-religion ( I mean most of our MI soldiers will go their, which means it’s not like they don’t know they’ll be getting a lions share of the Athiest).

    Though I would understand the arguement that some soldiers who are religious would just stay in because they are fucking tired (with good reason), but what could possibly be more American than that?