Disclaimer on Legal Counsel
There is no substitute for professional legal advice. Advice from MAAF officer, staff, or members is not legal advice. If you feel that you are being illegally discriminated against, it is important that you understand your rights. You have a right to legal counsel. If you feel that you may be in a situation where you may get in trouble, it is imperative that you consult a lawyer. A free consultation with a military lawyer is your right as a service member and you can contact defense counsel at your local Judge Advocate office. If you do not qualify for free military legal representation or feel uncomfortable with the military legal system you may contact us for help finding legal counsel.
Use your Chain of Command
Although you may choose a number of options, the “approved solution” is to use your chain of command. They are your leaders and may pleasantly surprise you if you communicate with them. In addition, prior history has shown that legal action (whether civilian, JAG, or IG) will likely have no effect if the chain of command is not given an opportunity to resolve the issue. There may be cases whether the chain of command is the problem, but before civilian legal action is pursued, your chain of command must become involved. See below for several steps that can be taken prior to or in addition to your chain of command.
Communication is the Key
Most problematic situations can be resolved with communication. Many people may unintentionally make insensitive remarks or promote an activity you find offensive. Some military folks are not accustomed to thinking that there may be atheists, humanists, or other ideological minorities in their midst. It is critical to be rational, to try to find common ground, and not to make rash remarks. Communication with neutral third parties like friends and mentors (in person or through MAAF) may also help to clarify the situation. If communication is not possible with the person or persons with whom you are having a problem, other solutions exist.
Chaplains may help
Chaplains are charged with attending to religious affairs in the unit, including the command climate. Many discrimination situations are within the responsibility of your unit chaplain to address and resolve. If the chaplain is the problem or is overtly hostile, this may not be an option. However, take time to give your chaplain an opportunity to provide you the same support other service members receive. On a simpler level, chaplains are trained to provide personal, confidential counseling, and many can do this without resorting to an unwanted faith-based approach.
** of the below options, EO (Equal Opportunity + EEO, Equal Employment Opportunity + MEO, Military Equal Opportunity) is generally appropriate to protect your individual rights and IG (Inspector General) is generally appropriate when the command has violated regulations. There is overlap as well. In all cases, you can contact JAG (Judge Advocate) to get free military legal counsel on your behalf. **
As an atheist you are protected by Equal Opportunity (and Equal Employment Opportunity) regulations. Department of Defense directive on Military Equal Opportunity (MEO, 1350.2) states, “Persons shall be evaluated on individual merit, fitness, and capability, regardless of race, sex, color, national origin, or religion”. The MEO regulation further defines religion as “A personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes, moral or ethical beliefs, and practices that are held with the strength of traditional religious views, characterized by ardor and faith, and generally evidenced through specific religious observances.” This is entirely compatible with nontheistic ideologies. All Department of Defense organizations are required to have an equal opportunity representative. However, do not be surprised if your representative has never thought about the rights of atheists before. These individuals are required to treat you fairly and should help you find a solution or lodge a formal complaint. If your equal opportunity representative is unable or unwilling to help you, you should still be able to contact another representative from your unit’s higher headquarters.
The Inspector General and Article 138
If you find that you cannot work your issue through communication or through equal opportunity channels or command channels, you are still entitled to a couple of methods of redress. The first course of action is to file a complaint through the Inspector General (IG). The IG has the responsibility of investigating complaints and enforcing regulations. The IG may or may not be a lawyer and your success may vary. Just like the equal opportunity channels, it is possible to keep submitting your complaint to higher levels up to the applicable department’s headquarters. Finally, you can file an Article 138 complaint against your commander (definitely seek legal counsel first). Article 138 complaint procedures vary from service to service so it is important that you read the applicable regulations or seek legal counsel. Remember, all these processes can take a lot of time and can monopolize a lot of your commander’s time. For these reasons, it is important that you try to resolve the issue through communication and at the lowest level possible. You have the right to stand up for what you believe in and we stand ready to support atheists and freethinkers experiencing discrimination.
Going Outside the Military
If you find that you cannot resolve your issues within the military, you still have several options. Organizations such as MAAF and our affiliates are always ready to fight for your rights. In addition, you may find that working through the local media, writing editorials, and raising awareness about your plight may be effective. Service members still retain the right to publish newsletters, articles, and engage in public speaking. You may want to familiarize yourself with the applicable regulations. Another approach which can be effective is to contact your representatives in Congress. The best way is usually to present your case by writing a letter (or by showing up at their door). Most legislators can be reached by email, phone, or fax. Filing a congressional complaint is easy. Filing a “congressional” should be the last step as it can be very time consuming for your command and your legislator. I would like to reiterate the first point that your chain of command must be given an opportunity to address issues before you go outside the military for formal legal action or else it will be very easy for IG, legal, or congressional investigators to simply refer the issue back to your chain of command for action.