Group Sues Pentagon Over First Amendment Religion Issue

| Wed Sep. 19, 2007 8:14 PM EDT

Yesterday, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and U.S. Army Major Paul Welborne. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, alleges that Army specialist Jeremy Hall, who is currently serving in Iraq, had his First Amendment rights violated last Thanksgiving when he was threatened and otherwise harrassed because he declined to participate in a Thanksgiving prayer ceremony.

According to Hall, who is an atheist, when he refused to join hands with other soldiers and pray, he was told by a staff sergeant (who first had to ask someone what an atheist was) that he could not eat Thanksgiving dinner with his peers. Hall, however, continued to eat his dinner at the table.

According to the complaint, in August, Hall received permission from a military chaplain to organize a group for atheist soldiers, but when the group met, Major Welborne broke it up, and also threatened to charge Hall with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Hall says that Welborne further threatened him that he would block Hall's re-enlistment in the Army if the atheist group continued to meet. Hall alleges that Welborne disrupted the meeting and confronted those in attendance.

Hall's complaint is not unique. Just last month, the Pentagon's Inspector General responded to a complaint by an MRFF that Defense Department officials violated their own regulations by appearing in a video to promote a fundamentalist Christian organization.

A spokesman for the MRFF has indicated that the Hall lawsuit is just the first of many.

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