Reports from Fort Sam Houston indicate soldiers attending a mandatory training session intended to address the problem of military suicides were led in an explicitly Christian prayer by a chaplain without an opportunity to opt out. One of the soldiers attending, staff sergeant Victoria Gettman, is an atheist who recognized this as an egregious violation and contacted Sgt Justin Griffith, the Military Director of American Atheists, who broke the story on his blog. Sgt Griffith spoke with PNC about this issue. He does not speak on behalf of the Army or the Department of Defense.
“The Army could have done this better by doing it the way every other post did it,” Griffith said. His own post, Fort Jackson, did a similar day of training on the stand-down but had no religious content. Griffith described the results as “excellent,” saying, “We had small breakout sessions and shared how we’ve been affected by suicide. All the myths associated with the shameful connotations of depression melted instantly. That sort of approach is universal. Atheists kill themselves too; if the Army cares – and it does – it should care about all. Everyone. All approaches need to be universal because all of us deserve to live.”
Griffith is acutely aware of the way this sort of sectarian approach ostracizes members of minority religions along with atheists: “Presenting [Christian prayer] as a universal approach is a slap in the face to all religious preferences who aren’t Christian and many who are, who might be the wrong type of Christian,” arguing that it sends a message that other religious preferences are part of the problem and that only Christianity is the solution – or the right solution.
The story has been picked up by the Huffington Post, and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group that has raised alarms about impermissible evangelization and similar issues within the military, may take action. The group’s founder, Mikey Weinstein, told HuffPo that Staff Sgt Gettman is not alone, and that others who were offended by the prayer – including Christians who do not want to see their religion pushed by the government – have contacted him to join in the complaint.
Griffith says that leadership needs admit that this was a mistake, to investigate how it was allowed to happen, and to “institute corrective training for people who didn’t understand that this should have been stopped and that this is problematic.” He also said that leadership needs to protect Staff Sgt Gettman as a whistleblower, emphasizing that she, Griffith himself, and others like them are only trying to help the Army correct problems with inappropriate mixtures of church and state: “We try to stick up for people who don’t speak up.”
When asked what he would like the Pagan community to know, Sgt Griffith responded, “We know that the religious minorities have experienced a lot of what we’re going through, and they’ve pioneered a lot, and we look up to you, and we respect your Constitutional rights.” He specifically referred to the Pagan battles for acceptance in the 1990s, saying “That’s the path breaking that atheists are trying to follow,” and that “atheists do understand and empathize with your plight in the military,” concluding, “We’re in the same boat.”