Jul 23, 2008

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today asked the U.S. Department of Defense to investigate an Army base’s practice of coercing soldiers to attend church services during their training.

Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri offers “Free Day Away” as one of only two opportunities for soldiers to leave the base during eight weeks of vigorous Army training. (The other day is the day before graduation, which can be spent with parents and guests.) During “Free Day Away,” trainees are picked up by a bus sent from the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Lebanon, Mo., to participate in a day full of recreational activities, followed by dinner and a required church service.

Trainees are given the impression that the event is sponsored by the Army and that they must attend. If they do not attend, they have to remain on the base and continue with training, while those who attend the event have a break for the day.

 “We believe that it is of utmost importance that the Army guarantee the constitutional rights of those who risk their lives to protect our freedom,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “And that means ensuring that soldiers have the freedom to practice any faith or no faith at all.

“The coercive religious practices at Fort Leonard Wood are an outrage,” he continued, “and the Department of Defense should put a stop to them immediately.”

During the church service, soldiers are told that they are all sinners who must repent and that they “must be saved now or go to hell.” Soldiers willing to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior are instructed to step into the aisles of the church and enroll in a six-lesson correspondence course that will lead to their “personal salvation.”

In a 2003 article in the Global Baptist Times, the pastor of Tabernacle Church reported that 270,000 soldiers had participated in the “Free Day Away” ministry since its inception in 1971 and that 47,000 had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. The Tabernacle Church also asks the soldiers to provide their home addresses so members of their families can also be “saved.”

Fort Leonard Wood has promoted this program for the past 36 years and the program is endorsed by the base commander, Americans United learned during its investigation.

Americans United, in its letter, urged Gordon S. Heddell, acting inspector general for the Department of Defense, to conduct a full investigation into the Army’s “Free Day Away” practice.

The letter was prepared by Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser and volunteer attorney Howard Sribnick.

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.