Army trainees at Fort Gordon, Georgia, say they were marched from their barracks to a base chapel Saturday morning for a mandatory Christian proselytizing event.
The soldiers, at the post for Advanced Individual Training, said they were required to listen as a Christian chaplain prayed over them and urged them to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ. A Christian rock band also played during the three-and-a-half-hour “Spiritual Fitness Barbecue.”
After being contacted by 43 soldiers and Army civilians at Fort Gordon immediately following the event, “Mikey” Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, wrote a letter of complaint to Maj. Gen. John Morrison Jr., the installation commander, late Saturday evening.
The soldiers, Weinstein wrote, “quite justly feel as though they have been brutally subjected to fundamentalist Christian predators and bullies, superior to them in the Fort Gordon chain of command under your control.”
Weinstein said that as more information poured in from Fort Gordon soldiers, it emerged that the spiritual fitness events are a regular occurrence at the base, held several times a year, perhaps coinciding with the Advanced Individual Training class entry cycle.
In a statement Monday afternoon, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, which oversees soldiers’ initial training, said attendance at the event was not compulsory.
“The event you inquired about was the Spiritual Fitness Barbeque, which is part of a voluntary program helping to develop soldier resiliency,” according to the statement. “This event is bi-annual, and has been held for the last 10 years. Written instructions were provided to the units to help coordinate participation and set up. The instructions were clear that this was strictly a voluntary event, and that soldiers are not required to attend.
“More than 500 soldiers RSVP'd,” the statement continued. “The brigade commander was in attendance for the event and saw soldiers coming and going freely, with no complaints from soldiers he spoke with.”
It is not clear how many soldiers attended the event without accepting the invitation.
“The command will look further into the incident to ensure there was no miscommunication about the voluntary nature of this event,“ the TRADOC statement read.
Weinstein said in an interview that the notion the event was voluntary was contradicted by the soldiers who flooded MRFF’s phone lines and email boxes with complaints, Weinstein said the soldiers said they were not only told they had to go, but that the barracks would be scoured for “introverts” who were trying to avoid attending.
Though there may have been an operations order indicating that the event was voluntary, Weinstein said that MRFF clients at the post have told him that typical spiritual fitness events attract 125-130 soldiers, while the event Saturday drew more than 500, There were also four chaplains on hand for the event.
In his letter to Morrison, Weinstein wrote that the soldiers’ “Army superiors have trampled all over their constitutionally-guaranteed civil rights not to have the United States Army violate the No Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of our United States Constitution.”
Weinstein wrote that the majority of MRFF’s clients in the matter are practicing Christians who understand that “forcing soldiers against their will to ... accept that particular Christian majoritarian faith is blatantly and wretchedly wrong from a moral, ethical and, especially, legal perspective.”
Others who complained about the event included “Army soldiers and Army personnel who follow the religious convictions of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism as well as a number of those who self-describe as agnostic, atheist, humanist and secularist,” he wrote.