Court dismisses atheist's lawsuit regarding Fort Riley

TOPEKA | A federal judge in Kansas dismissed a lawsuit Thursday by an atheist soldier who claimed his rights were violated because he had to attend events where prayers were said while stationed at Fort Riley.

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil ruled Army Spc. Dustin Chalker failed to exhaust all other alternatives before he and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation sued the Department of Defense in 2008.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation said Chalker's case reflected a pattern of religious intolerance and proselytizing by members of the armed forces. Mikey Weinstein, president of the Albuquerque, N.M., foundation, said an appeal of the ruling would be filed with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

“It's a shame because Dustin did all that he could,” Weinstein said.

The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment about the ruling. Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez also declined to comment specifically about it but said the Pentagon doesn't endorse any religion or religious organization and allows service members to practice their faith of choice.

There are ways to address perceived unfair treatment, including use of chain of command, the inspector general or equal opportunity office to raise concerns, she said.

Weinstein has previously filed litigation against the Pentagon over religious issues involving cadets at the Air Force Academy, where he and his son graduated. Members of the military and veterans who have contacted the foundation about similar instances of pressure and coercion by what are deemed fundamentalist Christians, he said.

Pedro Irigonegaray, a Topeka attorney, said the foundation was always concerned that the courts would agree with the Department of Justice about Chalker not going through his chain of command before seeking judicial relief.

“But we also knew that efforts to comply with the process were met with dismissive and punitive reactions,” Irigonegaray said. “It was our hope because of the immensity of the issue involved that the court would ... have intervened.”

Chalker is a combat medic and among 16,000 military personnel the foundation says it represents. The foundation says 96 percent of them are Christians upset about what they view as discrimination by more conservative and evangelical personnel.

Irigonegaray said he hoped the evidence provided by the foundation would prompt the military to launch its own investigation into religious activities and “change the status quo.”

“The United States of America's military must be secular, because when we allow the military to be anything but secular, it creates a minority and those minority rights are going to be denied,” Irigonegaray said. “To suggest that this ruling solves the problem would be inappropriate.”

The case is Specialist Dustin Chalker and Military Religious Freedom Foundation v. Robert Gates, secretary, United States Department of Defense, No. 08-cv-02467.