The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: (202) 466-3234,Joe Conn,Rob Boston,Sandhya Bathija

Americans United Urges Army Officials To Alter 'Church Retreat' Program At Missouri Base


U.S. military officials should make further changes at Fort Leonard
Wood in Missouri to ensure that soldiers are not subjected to unwanted
religious proselytism, says Americans United for Separation of Church
and State.

In July of 2008, Americans United wrote to Department of Defense
officials to raise concerns about the "Tabernacle Baptist Church
Retreat" (previously known as "Free Day Away"), a program sponsored by
a church in Lebanon, Mo. Under the program, soldiers are taken to the
church for food and recreational activities but are required to attend
an evangelistic service while there.

Soldiers who chose not to attend were left behind at the base to
continue with their military responsibilities. The fort is a training
center for new recruits, and the "Church Retreat" program is the only
day (other than the day before graduation) off base allotted to
enlistees. Officials at the fort had been promoting the program for 36

Shortly after AU sent its missive, Department of Defense officials
issued guidelines stating that it should be made clear that attendance
is voluntary and that soldiers who remain behind should be allotted
free time and not made to work.

But Americans United says that's not enough. In a follow-up letter sent
to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates today, AU suggests that
trainees who choose not to attend the church-sponsored event should be
offered equivalent recreational activities.

"Our understanding is that the only 'secular alternative' offered to
soldiers is free time at Fort Leonard Wood," observes the AU letter.
"Soldiers who opt not to participate in the Church Retreat thus have no
opportunity to leave the base or enjoy recreational activities such as
bowling or free food. If that is so, presenting soldiers with such a
choice still coerces them to participate in religious activities in
violation of the...First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution."

The AU letter suggests that the problem could be resolved by
offering soldiers who choose not to take part in the "Church Retreat"
transportation to a nearby town that offers recreational activities.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said
he appreciates that Defense Department officials have taken some steps
to reduce the problem but added that they should do more.

"The military has no right to coerce recruits to attend a church
service where they are pressured to make a religious commitment," Lynn
said. "Additional changes are necessary to ensure that our service
personnel are treated fairly."

AU's letter was drafted by AU Madison Fellow Taryn Wilgus Null, in
consultation with Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Senior Litigation
Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.