Army Threatened With Religious Freedom Lawsuit Over Alleged Sectarian Prayer

FORT RILEY, KS - AUGUST 13:  Soldiers with the 1st Infantry Division bow their heads in prayer before a deployment ceremony f
FORT RILEY, KS - AUGUST 13: Soldiers with the 1st Infantry Division bow their heads in prayer before a deployment ceremony for another tour in Iraq August 13, 2009 at Fort Riley, Kansas. The Army requires all soldiers take suicide awareness classes as longer and more frequent deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years have taken a toll, with 96 reported Army suicides so far through July 31 of this year. Thousands of soldiers have returned from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental difficulties. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Staff Sgt. Victoria Gettman is frustrated and disappointed by what she calls a "completely incompetent" response to complaints she filed in September to her chain of command after a Christian chaplain allegedly gave a sectarian prayer following a mandatory military event at Fort Sam Houston.

Now, more than four months after the incident in San Antonio, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is preparing to file a federal lawsuit if the Army refuses to review -- and appropriately respond -- to Gettman's complaints.

Gettman's story was first reported by The Huffington Post this past October: She recounted how she and her fellow soldiers from the 264th Medical Battalion were attending a mandatory suicide prevention session -- part of the military's resilience training -- when a chaplain took the stage and led the room in a mass prayer that Gettman, an atheist, characterized as sectarian.

"The chaplain said we have to have something bigger than ourselves. We need, and he stresses need, to have something divine in our life," she recalled.

She said the lights were turned off, candles were passed around, and the chaplain told the soldiers to bow their heads. "The entire theater was forced into a mass Christian prayer," Gettman said. "I heard him refer to his 'Heavenly Father' and 'Lord.'"

Gettman, a 17-year Army veteran, knew the prayer session was optional. However, the room was filled with soldiers fresh out of boot camp, and Gettman felt those younger individuals -- who included a Buddhist student and at least two Jewish soldiers -- may have thought the prayer was mandatory, just as the suicide prevention session was.

After going to her supervisors, Gettman filed written complaints both to the Army's Inspector General and her base's equal opportunity office, charging that the chaplain's sectarian prayer was a violation of Army regulations and the U.S. Constitution's establishment clause.

According to Gettman, who talked to HuffPost Thursday, her complaints were met with a string of unprofessional, combative meetings that eventually led her to seek legal advice.

In her first meeting with an equal opportunity advisor, Gettman told HuffPost, the EOA as "very hostile," first trying to dissuade her from filing a formal complaint before giving her the wrong paperwork, which Gettman quickly recognized and pointed out. Gettman also alleged that the EOA frequently cut her off and repeatedly read to her the definitions of covert and overt mandatory prayer to make sure that Gettman understood the difference -- behavior she described as "condescending."

"After I had that meeting with the EO[A], and I was so disgusted with the way he treated me that first time, I went to my leadership -- I went to my first sergeant -- and I told him the whole story," Gettman explained. "A couple days later, he comes back to me and says it was just a miscommunication ... I was horrified by that too. It felt like I was being blown off."

Gettman completed a series of sworn statements and then waited for updates on the status of her complaints -- but they never came. Months later, after returning from the "Christmas Exodus" break, she went to her first-line EOA for information. She said she was then contacted by a different EOA, who told her the case had been ruled unsubstantiated in mid-November -- an outcome that shocked Gettman, since she said she had never been informed of that decision.

She now feels that she has exhausted all of her options. "I'm so frustrated, I'm so aggravated," Gettman said. "I just don't know what to do."

However, Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, doesn't consider Gettman's case closed, and he and his litigation team intend to pursue an "aggressive" federal lawsuit if the Army fails to rectify Gettman's complaints.

Weinstein said the foundation's message to the Army is twofold: First, the Army should "move with light speed" to review and remedy this case. Second, if the Army decides not to review Gettman's complaints, Weinstein said the Army should prepare to "tell it to the judge."

"We are waiting for the Army to put the final nail in the coffin of its administrative attempt to address what has happened here, which is nothing more than the most vitriolic, humiliating and dehumanizing reprisal and retribution [against] a wonderful soldier," Weinstein charged.

Weinstein had previously contacted the Army to demand that the chaplain be disciplined for the mass prayer and that the Army provide a written apology to the soldiers.

A call for comment to the Public Affairs Office at Fort Sam Houston was not returned prior to publication. However, in a written statement provided to HuffPost in October, Army spokesman Maj. S. Justin Platt maintained that the Army did not violate regulations following the suicide prevention program.

"The chaplain's prayer had no reference to any specific deity, and ended with the words, 'through your holy name.' This is the same ending offered during each training course graduation ceremony, or other military-sponsored event," the statement read. "The Army is cognizant of our Soldiers' religious freedoms, and would never violate their free exercise of religion or choice not to profess a religious faith."

Weinstein contends, however, that Gettman's complaint is not an anomaly: Not only did 11 other soldiers attending the suicide prevention program file complaints, but there have been numerous allegations within the ranks of Christian proselytizing in recent years.

Gettman said this whole incident has raised her concerns about young soldiers who are "very inexperienced with the rules and regulations" and may be dissuaded from filing similar complaints in the future.

"I am scared for the younger soldiers that try to go in there and make complaints because I know that it can be intimidating ... I had to fight my way," Gettman said. "I feel bad for all these young soldiers in this situation who are trying to get help."



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