Military officials in Iraq are investigating allegations that an Army specialist is being harassed for being an atheist but said Saturday that they cannot find an officer the soldier has named in a federal lawsuit.
Spc. Jeremy Hall and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit against Maj. Paul Welborne and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kansas, this past week. It alleges that Welborne threatened to pursue military charges against Hall and to block his reenlistment because he was trying to hold a meeting of atheists and non-Christians in Iraq.
The suit also alleges that Gates permits a military culture in which officers are encouraged to pressure soldiers to adopt and espouse fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
On Friday, Mikey Weinstein, the foundation's founder and president, released to The Associated Press copies of e-mails from Hall in which the soldier said he had been harassed and threatened on blogs with being killed by friendly fire for filing the lawsuit.
Lt. Col. James Hutton, a spokesman for the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq, said in a statement from Iraq on Saturday that the Army was investigating Hall's situation. But he added: "Several media reports list a person named Maj. Paul Welborne as having been involved in this situation. To date, we have not located any soldier by that name."
In responding to the lawsuit, a Pentagon spokesman said the military does value and respect religious freedoms, but that accommodating religious practices should not interfere with unit cohesion, readiness, standards or discipline.
Hall, who is serving with the 97th Military Police Battalion out of Fort Riley, Kan., has been in Iraq since 2006, on his second tour.
‘I might be harmed or worse’
Hall wrote in a series of e-mails to Weinstein that he feared for his safety after being "hallchecked" — being shoved against the wall in a hallway — by fellow soldiers who objected to his lawsuit. Bloggers on the Internet have also referred to "fragging" Hall, or killing him by friendly fire.
"I hope I am not the victim of a hate crime while I sleep tonight. I do not want to die for my country this way," wrote Hall, who said a non-commissioned officer was threatening to beat him. "I'm doing my best right now. But I am still afraid that I might be harmed or worse."
Weinstein said Saturday that the issue was not locating Welborne, noting the incidents alleged in the lawsuit occurred in July and August and the major may have left Iraq since then. Instead, he said, the military must find the soldiers who are threatening Hall and prosecute them under military law.
"We're talking about stuff that happened 36 hours ago. If they can't find the people who have been harassing Jeremy, we will," Weinstein said. "This isn't that hard to do.
"If one hair on Hall's head is touched, there will be hell to pay," Weinstein said.
In the lawsuit, Hall said that his free speech and religious rights were violated a year ago when he sat down with soldiers to eat a Thanksgiving holiday dinner. When asked to join hands and pray, Hall declined, but sat as the other soldiers prayed over the food. A sergeant asked why he would not pray and Hall told him he was an atheist, meaning he does not believe in God.
The sergeant demanded that Hall move to another table and not sit with the other soldiers. Hall said he stayed and ate without speaking to the others.
Challenges to Hall’s beliefs
In July, Hall said he walked away from soldiers in his unit when a colonel wanted them to pray before they went on a mission in the city of Kirkuk.
The lawsuit names Gates as a defendant and alleges he permits a culture that sanctions activities by Christian organizations, including providing personnel and equipment.
It also says the military permits proselytizing by soldiers, tolerates anti-Semitism, placing of religious symbols on military equipment and allows the use of military e-mail accounts to send religious rhetoric.
Some postings on military-related blogs have been critical of Hall, with some people wondering how atheists can claim religious freedom if they practice no sanctioned faith.
One individual, posting under the name "Hidog," suggested Hall put on an orange vest and carry a sign "Bong hits 4 Allah" through the streets of Iraq, "because apparently, your Bill of Rights trump your CO's (commanding officer's) orders."
But others said the U.S. Constitution protects "freedom from religion," and defended Hall, adding that they were glad he spoke up against the pressures from some Christians.