At least two of the soldiers who allege they were punished for not attending an evangelical Christian concert in May say that the Army’s equal opportunity program is fundamentally broken and have lost faith that the separation of church and state within the military is adhered to by command. The allegations have since led to an Army investigation.
Anonymous soldiers and Pvt. Anthony Smith, who is on active duty with the National Guard in Arizona, told Truthout they were among approximately 80 soldiers who were punished for choosing not to attend “The Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness Concert” headlined by BarlowGirl, an evangelical Christian rock group, at Fort Eustis on May 13.
After being punished by cleaning the barracks, Smith and another soldier that night organized approximately 20 of the punished soldiers to complain to the fort’s Equal Opportunity (EO) office. According to the Army’s Deputy of Chief of Staff’s web page, the EO program “formulates, directs, and sustains a comprehensive effort to maximize human potential to ensure fair treatment for military personnel, family members, and DA civilians without regard to race, color, gender, religion, or national origin, and provide an environment free of unlawful discrimination and offensive behavior.”
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According to Smith and another soldier, they were clearly discriminated against because of their beliefs. “Why do Christians get to celebrate their religion while we get to clean,” Smith said. “That’s the f**ked up part.”
By the next day, only nine soldiers met with their EO platoon sergeant. Subsequently, seven of the nine soldiers decided not to press forward with the complaint, although Smith and another soldier were determined to file the complaint despite pressure from EO advisers not to.
The first EO adviser they met with tried to persuade them that nothing was wrong, according to Smith. Both soldiers said EO advisers pressured them to not file a formal complaint. According to Smith, advisers he consulted with told him a formal complaint would create a paper trail as well as “a timeline.” The adviser also told him that the complaint would become “a statistic.” Smith believes this wasn’t a lie. He said formal complaints are “100 percent useless.”
Meetings with EO advisers and the chain of command were frustrating, another soldier, who asked not to be identified, said.
“During those times there were meetings and discussions with commanders and NCOs, but they seemed to deteriorate to mere definitions, language, and legalistic semantics; trying to reassign and re-purpose words and meanings,” the soldier said. “Trying to hold their intellect steady to deliver a point felt like handling a bar of wet soap.”
At one point, the soldier asked for a non-Christian EO adviser on the assumption that an EO adviser of another faith or no faith would understand why the soldier felt violated by the events that night. According to the soldier, his EO adviser got close to him and whispered that he wasn’t a Christian, he was a Catholic.
Ten days after they were put in lockdown for the night, the soldier drafted a letter to his commander, provided to Truthout, which he decided not to send because he had lost all confidence in the EO system. Within the letter, the soldier explained why he felt so strongly that his rights were infringed that night.
“On May 13 the [non-commissioned officers] at Ft Eustis issued us a directive (equivalent to a law which we must obey) that we march towards a religious destination,” the soldier wrote. “In my mind that was an unlawful directive. Not only that but it was undermining the fundamental motive of me being in the United States altogether. I felt betrayed that in this instance the intent of the constitution seemed present only on paper but not in practice, that whoever is in charge might be turning to the oppressor the founding fathers were escaping from … and for a moment I had to pause and wonder whether I may have made the wrong choice” in joining the military.
In a conversation with Truthout, the soldier said commanders could easily ensure what happened that night never happened again. He said commanders should never be involved in boosting the attendance of any event that’s religious in nature.
It’s a recommendation that Mikey Weinstein, the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), wholeheartedly agrees with. On Thursday, MRFF’s senior researcher Chris Rodda exposed the alleged incident at Fort Eustis on Huffington Post after Weinstein received numerous complaints about the incident.
Smith said he turned to MRFF because no one else would listen to him. He said other soldiers with similar experiences shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to MRFF “because they have the resources to help.”
Weinstein says the soldiers who came forward are “heroes” that were “spiritually raped” by their command. Weinstein also said that incidents aren’t one-off events, and described the entire concept behind the Spiritual Fitness Concert series as violating the establishment clause.
There’s evidence to support that accusation. According to USASpending.gov, the Department of Defense (DoD) paid the BarlowGirl’s talent agency, Greg Oliver Agency, $23,000 to perform. Vince Barlow, the band’s manager and father, confirmed his daughters were paid that amount for two shows, one at Fort Eustis and the other at nearby Fort Lee. Asked about the alleged incident that night, Barlow said “our family does not condone any form of coercion.”
When the story broke Friday, Lauren Barlow, the band’s singer and drummer, tweeted that the incident was “horrible. We never knew that. We thought they had a choice. If we would have known we would have said something.” (The tweet has since been taken down.) According to their web site, BarlowGirl is “tender-hearted, beautiful young women who aren’t afraid to take an aggressive, almost warrior-like stance when it comes to spreading the gospel and serving God.”
Vince Barlow, however, says he believes that what happened before the Spiritual Fitness concert his daughters played at Fort Eustis was an aberration. He said he spoke to the concert series’ creator, Maj Gen James E. Chambers, a born-again Christian, before the May performance and said he would never jeopardize the concert series by coercing soldiers to attend.
In response to the incident, the Army said Friday it will investigate. “If something like that were to have happened, it would be contrary to Army policy,” Army spokesman Col. Thomas Collins told The Associated Press.
The problem, however, according to Weinstein is that the concert series even exists, especially since it was created by a commanding officer and that it’s paid for by taxpayer money, a clear violation of the establishment clause.
The brainchild of Maj. Gen. Chambers, the Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness Concert series was created at Fort Eustis when he was the commanding general there. In June 2008, Chambers brought the Christian concert series to Fort Lee, when he became its commanding general.
The point behind the concert series was to connect to young soldiers. “The easiest way to get to Soldiers today is through a phone or music,” Chambers told Fort Lee Public Affairs back in 2008. “Through those means, you can change behavior, and that’s what I’m looking forward to more than anything else.”
There isn’t much doubt that the concert series promotes religious belief. Chambers admitted as much to Fort Lee Public Affairs. “The idea is not to be a proponent for any one religion,” he said. “It’s to have a mix of different performers with different religious backgrounds.”
But Smith says he hasn’t heard of any act performing who wasn’t Christian. “I never once heard of a Muslim event or an atheist event,” he said. “The vast majority of them have to be Christian events.”
According to MRFF, the DoD has spent at least $300,000 on Christian musical acts for these events. For instance, since 2007, the DoD has paid $125,000 to the Street Level Artists Agency, which describes its mission as “Christian radicals …bringing the Gospel into the rock ‘n roll vernacular of the common man,” for performances at Forts Eustis and Lee, according to records on USASpending.gov. The agency represents Christian performers like David Phelps and Phil Keaggy, both of whom have played the concert series.
On the morning before a concert performance at Fort Lee, Congressman J. Randy Forbes (R-Virginia) joined Chambers at a national prayer breakfast. Forbes addressed the attendees and was effusive in his praise for Chambers.
“General, you have thanked a lot of people today, and I just want to thank you,” he said according to the Fort Lee Traveler. “I want to thank you because in a world where it is so easy to back away from one’s faith you have shown not only the courage to train and equip our Army to fight and defend freedom but to stand for faith across America.”
Weinstein said Chambers’ job isn’t to stand for faith, but to defend the United States Constitution, and he wants an example made of the major general.
“MRFF has one simple message to our Commander in Chief and the Pentagon he controls,” Weinstein said. “Show the world that we still have the noble capacity to be the Good Guys; subject Ft. Eustis Commander, Maj Gen Chambers to immediate trial by general courts martial for his blatant violations of the most foundational rubrics of the oath he swore to the United States Constitution.”
Editor’s Note: Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of MRFF, is a member of Truthout’s board of advisers.