A US Army Soldier recently complained that he was being ordered to do yard work for Catholics:
Got a question. [WITHHELD], has been tasks [sic] with cleaning/landscaping etc, a Catholic Church. This so far is not optional. You are more versed in the legality of church and state.
What I see is more of an issue of having a federal employee mandated to clean private property. It would be different if it were voluntary but it is not. The church portion is just a bonus. I am pretty sure that this is not legal. Got any references for me?
Without publicizing any other information, fellow military atheist Justin Griffith sprang into action, combined his American Atheists with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and categorically declared the US Army at Fort Gordon was violating the Constitution of the United States. Naturally.
A week later, without any further public information, Griffith declared victory, saying “Fort Gordon stops making soldiers do yard work for Catholics:”
*UPDATE: We won!* Hundreds of soldiers were ordered to clean up a Catholic organizations yard – also known as “area beautification.” This was off-post, during the duty day and in uniform…
I’d like to thank Fort Gordon, GA leadership for the rapid about-face…
Again, there was very little public information, only the atheists’ accusations and subsequent victory dance.
And then, Fort Gordon issued a statement that put some serious egg on the atheists’ faces [emphasis added]:
The issue raised by the Freedom From Religion Foundation results from a misunderstanding.
Soldiers taking part in community service projects while attending the Regimental Non-Commissioned Officers Academy may choose the project in which they participate from a list provided by the Academy. Catholic Social Services is on that list because they have periodically requested assistance from Fort Gordon Soldiers.
However, because CSS is a private organization, all Soldier assistance to it must be provided on a voluntary basis. We understand the sensitivity involving issues of belief, and we want to ensure that our Soldiers fully understand the voluntary nature of the program. We will reemphasize to our Soldiers that participation in any particular project is voluntary and that they may choose a community service project that matches their personal values.
Catholic Social Services remains one of the programs that Soldier may voluntarily assist as part of their service project.
The situation is far different than how it was portrayed.
Army professional education courses frequently contain a required “community service” block. (In fact, its fairly easy to find local news articles on Soldiers cleaning up at the Y, working at the local children’s therapy center, etc.) In this case, the school provides a list of options from which the students can choose. If the Soldiers ran their class as many do, it is likely the class divided its duties and one person was put in charge of the “community service” check box to organize the class’s project. That Soldier apparently chose the Catholic Social Services from the list.
If someone in the class has an issue with a peer’s decision (whether about community service or when they’re going to have their pool party), it becomes an exercise in leadership. (Leading one’s peers, or one’s “equals,” is often the most challenging task.) It may be the POC’s challenge to win his peers over to his decision, or it may be the dissenter’s challenge to change their minds. In either case, it is a task in communication, teamwork, and leadership — which is what such schools are all about.
The first email from the atheist military student was benign enough, and clearly demonstrated the misunderstanding. While community service is a required part of the course, the Army said the status of the CSS as a private organization — not its status as a religious organization — meant all service had to be voluntary. The soldier clearly did not understand that, as he repeated his belief that it was not voluntary.
That’s not gross in itself. Believe it or not, in an organization of 3 million in the total force, sometimes there are miscommunications or misunderstandings in the US military. Shocking, perhaps, but true. People also make mistakes — both on the subordinate side and the superior side. Rarely does such a situation call for a public hanging.
Notably, nowhere in the publicized portion of the email does the Soldier indicate he had talked to his chain of command. However, it looks like he was doing research to potentially do that very thing — after all, he asked for “references,” not a lawsuit. Had he taken the issue up with his leadership — references or not — he may have had his misunderstanding corrected.
Griffith didn’t offer references, though. He took it as an opportunity to pick a fight:
I took the liberty of taking this beyond American Atheists and sought even more support from other organizations. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Atheists have just issued our demands to have this stopped immediately…
We’re sending out press releases to all of our national media contacts…
The Soldier didn’t need “demands” or national press attention. He needed to talk to his superiors (or his peers).
When Griffith proudly proclaimed “*UPDATE: We won!*”, he was probably trying to give an impression that he had credible influence. The problem is he either wasn’t being truthful or he was claiming victory without having all the facts.
The latter seems to be the case.
As the Fort Gordon press release noted, Catholic Social Services remains on the list as one of several options for Soldiers to conduct community service. When a critic pointed this out, Griffith had a pointed response [formatting original]:
All soldiers that attend ALC Army wide, not just at Fort Gordon, are required to do so many hours of community service as part of the course. The CSS is one organization soldiers in this course at Fort Gordon can work with to meet those requirements.
The CSS was one organization…
Griffith seems to believe the Catholic Social Services was removed as an option for student community service projects in ALC. He’s wrong. In other words, Griffith was doing a victory dance based on incomplete information from his inside source. He apparently hadn’t read the press release or talked to public affairs, which is the first place most outside organizations go when they want to address an issue of public concern in the military. It seems he actually accomplished…nothing.
It is exceedingly likely the class chose to abandon their project for the CSS and choose something else. Wouldn’t you, as a student, if your instructors came by and discussed the legal letter they’d just received about your class? The truly unfortunate part is the atheist student had probably already expressed his concerns to his peers — which means they know exactly who is responsible for getting Fort Gordon in “trouble.”
“Hundreds of soldiers” weren’t “ordered” to do anything with respect to a Catholic organization’s landscaping. An ALC class chose it as their community service project. There was no violation of the Constitution nor any military regulation, and there was no “about face” by Fort Gordon. If future classes want to support the Catholic Social Services, they are free to do so. The only “victory” was in getting an atheist Soldier to communicate with his peers and chain of command — an act that shouldn’t have required a threatening letter from the FFRF.
The entire incident reeks of being sensationalized and over-dramatized to give the appearance that atheists were being persecuted and the Army was forced to capitulate — as if that would legitimize the frequent, continual, and repeated attacks on the Army by a small group of its own atheist Soldiers — even as the Army goes out of its way to accommodate them. As it turns out, the characterization of the incident by Griffith and the FFRF was nowhere near the truth. In addition, the FFRF became just the most recent group to misrepresent military demographics, claiming in their letter:
more than 23 percent of the military are atheist, agnostic, or non-religious…
As has been discussed here before, that statement is demonstrably false. It seems these military atheists not only dragged the FFRF into an ill-informed fight, they also gave them bad data. The FFRF likewise did a premature victory dance. Wonder if they’ll be so quick to help next time.
There’s one component some militant atheists seem to miss — or intentionally ignore. If Fort Gordon had placed the “yard work” at the CSS off limits because the group was faith-based, but allowed similar support to non-religious facilities, the Army would be discriminating on the basis of religion, which is contrary to the Constitution and religious freedom. For some atheists, that’s an inconvenient truth.
As has been noted several times before, most atheists in the military could probably care less about whether they’re raking leaves in front of the Catholic Social Services or the DMV. To a small, vocal and often-wrong group, however, that’s practically the end of the world.
“Pro-tip:” Make sure you have all your facts straight. Otherwise, you end up looking foolish when the truth comes out.
With reference to the Alliance Defending Freedom.