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Army's 'spiritual fitness' test angers some soldiers

Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll on soldiers: Witness the rise in suicides and other stress-related disorders. A few years ago, the Army noticed that some soldiers fared better than others, and it wondered: Why?

One reason, says Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, is that people who are inclined toward spirituality seem to be more resilient.

"Researchers have found that spiritual people have decreased odds of attempting suicide, and that spiritual fitness has a positive impact on quality of life, on coping and on mental health," says Cornum, who is director of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness.

'Foxhole Atheist' Upset

Working with psychological researchers, the Army developed a survey to assess a soldier's family relationships and his well-being -- emotionally, socially and spiritually. Every soldier was required to take the survey, including Justin Griffith, a sergeant at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Griffith, who describes himself as a "foxhole atheist," says he grew angry as the computerized survey asked him to rank himself on statements such as: "I am a spiritual person. I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all of humanity. I often find comfort in my religion and spiritual beliefs."

"The next question was equally shocking," Griffith says. " 'In difficult times, I pray or meditate.' I don't do those things, and I don't think any of those questions have anything to do with how fit I am as a soldier."

Griffith finished the survey, pressed submit, and in a few moments, he received an assessment: "Spiritual fitness may be an area of difficulty."

It continued: "You may lack a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and to others around you. You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself. You may question your beliefs, principles and values."

It concluded: "Improving your spiritual fitness should be an important goal."

Then it suggested that Griffith take a long computerized training module to teach him about different forms of spirituality, including prayer, meditation and attending church. Griffith wondered, "Is the Army saying my atheism makes me unfit to serve?"

A Smoke Screen For Religion?

"There's nothing about this assessment that indicates that you are fit or not fit to be a soldier," says Cornum. She says the module only offers ideas for developing one's spiritual side. It is not mandatory and has no effect on one's career.

"There's no pass-fail, nothing happens. No one sees it but the guy who takes it," she says.

To which Mikey Weinstein replies: "Tell it to the judge."

Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer who founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, says it's ridiculous to tell a soldier that a suggestion to buff up his or her spiritual muscles is voluntary. He believes the term "spirituality" is a smoke screen for religion -- particularly evangelical Christianity.

As evidence, he cites the part of the spirituality training module that describes the meaning behind the flag-folding ceremony. For Christians, the narrator says, the 12th fold "represents an emblem of eternity, and glorifies in their eyes, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost."

Weinstein says the Army is promoting religion and creating a religious test for its soldiers, which is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. He says he has 220 Army clients -- some atheist, but the vast majority Christian -- who are willing to sue to eliminate the spiritual fitness assessment.

"This is not a hard decision to make," he says. "This is a 1-inch putt if you're playing golf. This is clearly, blatantly unconstitutional -- and it has to stop."

Not Overtly Religious

Some religion law scholars disagree.

"If this were pushing people to engage in religious experience, that would be the slam-dunk that Mr. Weinstein talked about," says professor Robert Tuttle at George Washington University Law School. "But it's not."

Tuttle reviewed the material and says there are a couple of things -- such as the flag-folding description -- that are overtly religious. In fact, that portion was recently removed. But Tuttle says the Army is offering coping skills and overall it is not favoring one religion over another, or religion per se. And remember, he says, courts give a lot of deference to the military.

"I think it would be a close case, but I would be surprised if it were held unconstitutional," Tuttle says.

The Army may soon find out. Weinstein says if the government does not remove the spiritual fitness tool, his clients will sue next week. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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