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When you think about military readiness, spirituality may not leap to mind. But it does for the Army, which began assessing the spiritual fitness of troops back in October 2009. Well, now some soldiers say that violates their First Amendment rights.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has the story.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll on soldiers. Just look at the rise in suicides and other stress-related disorders. The Army noticed that some soldiers fared better than others, and it wondered why. One reason, says Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, is that people who are inclined toward spirituality seem to be more resilient.
Brigadier General RHONDA CORNUM (U.S. Army): Researchers have found that spiritual people have decreased odds of attempting suicide, and that spiritual fitness has a positive impact on quality of life, on coping, and on mental health.
HAGERTY: So, working with psychological researchers, the Army developed a survey that would assess a soldier's family relationships and his well-being -emotionally, socially and spiritually. Every soldier had to take it, including Justin Griffith, a sergeant at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Griffith, who describes himself as a foxhole atheist, says he grew angry as the computerized survey asked him to rank himself on statements like, I am a spiritual person, I often find comfort in my religion and spiritual beliefs.
Sergeant JUSTIN GRIFFITH (U.S. Army): The next question was equally shocking to me. In difficult times, I pray or meditate. I don't do those things, and I don't think that any of these questions have anything to do with how fit I am as a soldier.
HAGERTY: Griffith finished the survey, pressed submit, and in a few moments, he received an assessment. Spiritual fitness, it said, may be an area of difficulty. It continued:
Sgt. GRIFFITH: You may lack a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and to others around you. You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself.
HAGERTY: Then it suggested that he take a long computerized training module to teach him about different forms of spirituality, including prayer, meditation and attending church. Griffith wondered, is the Army saying my atheism makes me unfit to serve?
Brig. Gen. CORNUM: There's nothing about this assessment that indicates you are fit or not fit to be a soldier.
HAGERTY: Brigadier General Cornum says the module only offers ideas for developing your spiritual side. It is not mandatory and it has no effect on your career.
Brig. Gen. CORNUM: There's no pass-fail, there's no - nothing happens. And no one sees it but the guy who takes it.
Mr. MIKEY WEINSTEIN (Founder, Military Religious Freedom Foundation): Tell it to the judge.
HAGERTY: Mikey Weinstein is a former Air Force lawyer who founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. He says it's ridiculous to tell a soldier that a suggestion to buff up his or her spiritual muscles is voluntary. And he believes the term spirituality is a smokescreen for religion and particularly evangelical Christianity. He cites this part of the spirituality training module, which describes the meaning behind the flag-folding ceremony for Christians.
Unidentified Man: This represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.
HAGERTY: Weinstein says the Army is promoting religion and creating a religious test for its soldiers, which is prohibited by the Constitution. He says he has 220 Army clients, some atheist, but the vast majority Christian, who are willing to sue to eliminate the spiritual fitness assessment.
Mr. WEINSTEIN: This is about a 1-inch putt if you're playing golf. This is clearly, blatantly unconstitutional and it has to stop.
HAGERTY: Robert Tuttle, a religion law expert at George Washington University Law School, disagrees.
Professor ROBERT TUTTLE (Law, George Washington University): If this were pushing people to engage in religious experience, that would be the slam-dunk that Mr. Weinstein talked about, but it's not.
HAGERTY: Tuttle has reviewed the material and says there are a couple of things, such as the flag-folding description, that are overtly religious. And, in fact, that portion was recently removed. But Tuttle says the Army is offering coping skills and overall it is not favoring one religion, or religion per se. And, remember, he says, courts give a lot of deference to the military.
Prof. TUTTLE: I think it would be a close case, but I'd be surprised if it were held unconstitutional.
HAGERTY: The Army may soon find out. Mikey Weinstein says if the government does not remove the spiritual fitness tool, his clients will sue next week.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.