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Troops: Refusing to attend Christian concert got us into trouble

By Associated Press
Saturday, August 21, 2010 13:28 EDT
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The Army said Friday it was investigating a claim that dozens of soldiers who refused to attend a Christian band’s concert at a Virginia military base were banished to their barracks and told to clean them up.

Fort Eustis spokesman Rick Haverinen told The Associated Press he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the investigation. At the Pentagon, Army spokesman Col. Thomas Collins said the military shouldn’t impose religious views on soldiers.

“If something like that were to have happened, it would be contrary to Army policy,” Collins said.

Pvt. Anthony Smith said he and other soldiers felt pressured to attend the May concert while stationed at the Newport News base, home of the Army’s Transportation Corps.

“My whole issue was I don’t need to be preached at,” Smith said in a phone interview from Phoenix, where he is stationed with the National Guard. “That’s not what I signed up for.”

Smith, 21, was stationed in Virginia for nearly seven months for helicopter electrician training when the Christian rock group BarlowGirl played as part of the “Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness Concerts.”

Smith said a staff sergeant told 200 men in their barracks they could either attend or remain in their barracks. Eighty to 100 decided not to attend, he said.

“Instead of being released to our personal time, we were locked down,” Smith said. “It seemed very much like a punishment.”

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation first reported on the Christian concert. The foundation said it was approached by soldiers who were punished for not attending or offended by the religious theme of the event.

The group’s president, Mikey Weinstein, claims Christian-themed events are “ubiquitous” throughout the military, and he credited the soldiers for stepping forward.

“Whenever we see this egregious, unconstitutional religious tyranny our job is to fight it,” he said.

Smith said he and the other soldiers were told not to use their cell phones or personal computers and ordered to clean up the barracks.

About 20 of the men, including several Muslims, refused to attend the concert based on their religious beliefs, he said.

Smith said he went up the chain of command and traced the concert edict to a captain, who said he simply wanted to “show support for those kind of events that bring soldiers together.”

While not accepting blame, the officer apologized to the soldiers who refused to attend the concert and said it was not his intent to proselytize, he said.

“But once you get in there, you realize it’s evangelization,” Smith said.

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Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.

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