July 24, 2008, Topeka, KA – A national group alleged Wednesday that Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., is forcing soldiers to participate in a weekly religious event, a program that has been mentioned in a federal lawsuit in Kansas.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the Department of Defense’s inspector general, asking for an investigation into the Sunday evening event, whose name was recently changed from “Free Day Away” to “Tabernacle Baptist Church Retreat Program.” The Tabernacle Baptist Church in Lebanon, Mo., has hosted the event for soldiers from the Missouri post since 1971.
A Fort Leonard Wood spokesman said the program is voluntary, and the church’s pastor said it has taken steps to ensure that soldiers know they will hear a religious message if they attend.
But Americans United’s executive director, the Rev. Barry Lynn, said soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood must either attend the program or stay on post.
“That’s not the kind of choice that ought be to be given to soldiers,” said Lynn, who described the practice as “coercive evangelism.”
In the letter to the Defense Department, Lynn’s group said its request was prompted by complaints from an unnamed soldier assigned to Fort Leonard Wood.
A spokesman for the Department of Defense, Cmdr. Darryn James, said he didn’t know whether the inspector general had received the letter and declined further comment.
Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, applauded the request for an investigation. Still, Weinstein said he doubts American United’s request will result in changes, based on his group’s own efforts to fight the practice by going through the military’s chain of command.
Weinstein’s group and an atheist soldier stationed at Fort Riley, Kan., Spc. Jeremy Hall, have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Kansas against the Department of Defense and Secretary Robert Gates that mentioned the event. Hall and the foundation claim that the military allows and even supports a culture in which religious liberties are violated regularly.
Hall said he participated in “Free Day Away” in July 2004, during his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood.
Fort Leonard Wood spokeswoman Tiffany Ryan said soldiers are briefed about the event before they are allowed to leave post. That includes letting them know they will hear a religious message and must stay on church grounds.
Also, the Rev. Don Ball said the church recently started having soldiers review and sign a release before attending.
“We make no qualms about it. Our intent isn’t to make a Baptist out of them, but we are going to preach a Baptist message to them,” Ball said.
He said he has gone so far as to drive soldiers back to post when they feel uncomfortable about hearing the Christian message.
“I would never want to violate a person’s religious freedoms. If I do that, that gives someone the right to violate mine,” said Ball, who has been working with the ministry for 15 years.
But Weinstein said disclaimers and waivers create “a defacto religious test.” He said his foundation has heard complaints from about 300 officers and enlisted soldiers about Fort Leonard Wood since 2005.
“It’s not a remedy to have them sign something that says they know what is coming,” he said.