Kathleen Johnson briefing to White House Officials on Nontheists in the Military
Testimony to the Obama Administration, February 26, 2010
Presented by Kathleen Johnson, Vice President and Military Director of American Atheists
As a First Sergeant in the Army, I have witnessed firsthand how service members who are openly non-theist have been harassed by their commanders, leaders, and peers, and have been disrespected by their subordinates simply for failing to hold certain religious beliefs. Further, some of these service members have received threats to their life and welfare of such intensity that they have been forced to redeploy from the combat zones for their own safety. These service members are identified when they try to opt out of pre-mission unit prayers, when they raise objections to being forced to eat, work, and sleep in overtly religious environments, or when they try to organize meetings for like-minded individuals. These service members have few effective methods to address their issues internally, and a powerful tool, the Equal Opportunity system, is often closed to them because current regulations do not identify non-theism as a protected class, and each branch of the Armed Forces is free to interpret that lack to mean that non-theists do not merit protection from discrimination.
Now, as a civilian employee at Fort Hood, TX I am part of a large military population that is dealing with the aftermath of a tragic incident that occurred in part because no action was taken to intercept a dangerously self-radicalized religionist. Our current command climate, while intended to promote inclusiveness, protects
religious expression to a point that leaders are afraid to take appropriate actions when the circumstances require.
Both the Bush Administration and your Administration have demonstrated a lack of commitment to ensure the non-theist military community is fully accepted and integrated into the military community and is protected from discrimination. For example, the current Secretary of the Army, Secretary John McHugh, was appointed to his
position by President Obama despite how in 2005, in the wake of the exposure of egregious constitutional violations at the U.S. Air Force Academy, McHugh voted against an amendment to a bill that would have
required the Secretary of Defense to report to Congress on progress made in addressing the proselytizing of cadets. Further, the Department of Defense has a record of promoting officers to very senior positions despite clear evidence they are prone to using their positions to promote their religious beliefs. For example, the DOD
Inspector General found seven senior officers guilty of misconduct for illegally promoting Christianity at the Pentagon during the Christian Embassy video scandal in 2007. Two of the officers cited in the incident, Brigadier General Vince Brooks and Brigadier General Robert Caslen, were given senior commands and General Caslen was recently selected for promotion. The former Secretary of the Army, Preston M. Geren, who was implicated in the scandal, was appointed as Secretary of the Army before the investigation was even completed.
I wish to make it clear that the Secular Coalition for America is in no way stating that a religious person should be disqualified from senior positions for practicing their faith. We are, however, stating that such persons must be thoroughly vetted to ensure they will protect the religious liberty of all under their command, including
extending that protection to the one quarter of the military population who identify themselves as non-theist.
1. The Department of Defense standardizes the Equal Opportunity regulations throughout the Armed Services in a way that clearly defines non-theism as a protected class. This policy adjustment would simply ensure that non-theists are afforded the same protection from discrimination as other minorities.
2. The Administration demonstrates its commitment to improving the climate for non-theists by ensuring nominees to key senior leadership positions answer hard questions intended to indentify if they hold views detrimental to non-theists and if so, that such views be considered a disqualification from office.