Activist to sue Defense Department claiming religious bias

The activist who sparked a Defense Department investigation into the participation of a number of high-ranking officers in a video promoting the evangelical group Christian Embassy said on Thursday that he will soon file a lawsuit against the military in federal court in Kansas.

Michael Weinstein, the president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said in an interview that he wants to make sure Defense treats religion neutrally, and that religious proselytizing is barred at all levels of the chain of command. Weinstein spent 10 years in the Air Force as a judge advocate.

"The only other thing we're asking is that the federal judge order that no member of the [military] ever be involuntarily pressured or coerced to change their religious faith during the duty day or the duty night," Weinstein said.

The lawsuit has its origins in a similar claim Weinstein filed in 2005 on behalf of himself and four other Air Force Academy alumni. That suit charged that officers and cadets at the academy used the chain of command to pressure students -- whether mainline Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or members of other faiths -- to convert to fundamentalist Christianity.

The 2005 suit was dismissed in October 2006 when a U.S. district judge in Albuquerque, N.M., declared that the allegations were too vague, and the plaintiffs lacked standing to file suit because they were no longer students at the Air Force Academy. At the time, Weinstein characterized the case as having been dismissed on a technicality.

But the military lauded the dismissal.

"We believe academy officials performed properly and that this litigation is one important step in the direction in judicial recognition of that," said Maj. Gen. Jack Rives, Air Force judge advocate general.

On Thursday, Weinstein described the 2006 ruling as a tool kit that gave his organization and Wilmer Hale, the law firm that has provided the Military Religious Freedom Foundation with legal assistance, the guidelines they needed to file a more effective suit.

This time, Weinstein's claims will reach beyond the Air Force Academy and his own experience.

Weinstein cited the Christian Embassy video as evidence that the military promotes evangelical Christianity. He also alleged the use of anti-Semitic material in a Bible study curriculum at Fort Leavenworth and said a high-ranking general sent an e-mail invitation to a creationist event. But he declined to produce the documents he was referring to until the lawsuit is filed.

Weinstein also said he has been contacted by 5,000 members of the armed services, 96 percent of whom he says are Christians who say they have been targeted by members of other denominations.

Any corrective action resulting from the Defense inspector general's report on the Christian Embassy video will be insufficient to spur change within the military, Weinstein said. That report declared that seven officers, including four generals, had acted improperly by appearing in uniform in the video, possibly giving the impression that the Pentagon endorsed it.

Weinstein compared his efforts to movements that sought redress in court when other avenues had failed. "Like when we had busing, or when we had the right to choose, in this instance, we have to go into federal court," he said.

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