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Battle Erupts Over Marine Corps Training Doc That Cites 'Lack or Loss of Spiritual Faith' as Potential Suicide Risk Factor


"The whole concept of judging service members based on their spirituality is completely unconstitutional."

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Atheists and church-state separatists aren't happy about a Marine Corps training document that insinuates potential risk factors for suicide among soldiers include a "lack or loss of spiritual faith."

Critics are calling the language a discriminatory inclusion that targets non-believers, however others see it as a legitimate item worth considering, especially in light of the U.S. military's monumental suicide problem.

The story gained attention after an article was published on Wednesday by The Week's Dana Liebelson. In it she notes that, upon discovering the language about a loss of faith in the document, a concerned Marine contacted the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) led by Mikey Weinstein (TheBlaze has extensively covered this church-state separatist group).

To say that the MRFF is unhappy about the suicide language is an understatement. Liebelson sets up the debate that exists over the inclusion of the controversial language:

Advocates for the policy say the military is simply doing everything it can to promote emotional well-being among troops, especially in the face of its growing suicide epidemic. (Last year, the U.S. military saw more active duty soldiers commit suicide than die in combat — 48 of them Marines.)

"The whole concept of judging service members based on their spirituality is completely unconstitutional," says Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force officer and founder and president of MRFF. "This country was founded on a very critical principle — the Founding Framers looked at the horrors that occurred throughout history by mixing religion and war, and they said, 'We're going to separate church and state.' And that means they cannot test for religion in the military."

In the "risk indicators" section of the document in question, military leaders are encouraged to be aware of the personal and professional lives of the Marines who serve under them. The "potential risk indicators" are extensive, and the document notes that they are derived from "scientific studies on risky behavior."

Numerous categories, including relationship problems, family history, legal problems and performance problems, among others, are listed. It is under a category called "guidance/moral compass issue," though, that the controversial line appears.

After "lack or loss of spiritual faith" comes an inability to discern right from wrong, a lack of courage and a lack of self-control. You can see it, below:

A screen shot from a military document that was uploaded by the Rock Beyond Belief

There's no explanation about how the military would assess a loss of faith, Liebelson notes. While the "lack" of belief in a higher power (or concept) is potentially problematic without additional context, as it could lead commanders to assume non-believers are automatically at risk, the "loss" portion has some understandable defenses.

If a soldier goes through a difficult time and loses his or her faith as a result, it's possible that depression and other related sentiments could emerge. Of course, this is not to say that every individual who has abandoned religious adherence is in danger of suicide or depression. But for some this could be a sign that something bigger and more serious is unfolding internally, particularly for those who once had a strong faith and have abruptly abandoned it.

TheBlaze spoke with Weinstein on Friday to clarify his organization's stance on the matter. He reiterated that he stands against the document's focus on individual soldiers' faith perspectives.

"Of course we understand the horrible situation with PTSD and suicide," he said, adding the alleged church-state violation: "You cannot test for spirituality. You cannot do that."

The MRFF plans to sue the Marine Corps if the contents of the suicide prevention document are not amended. He noted that he believes the military has an evangelical ("dominionist" -- more on that here) bias and that the inclusion of faith in this manner is problematic. Weinstein called the line about a loss or lack of faith a "horrendous example of a national security threat."

"The Marine Corps knows that the Department of Justice cannot defend this," he told TheBlaze, noting that he hopes that the government will take the MRFF's suggestions to temper the language. "It would be so easy for the Marine Corps to slightly put a variation on the theme."

TheBlaze did ask about the difference between "lack" of faith and "loss" of faith. Weinstein agreed that there is a difference between the two, nothing that if someone stopped attending church (teamed with other troubling factors), it could be a sign that something is wrong.

"The problem is, how do you determine that?" he asked, going on to say that it's a slippery slope to allow such language in a military training document.

Photo Credit: ShutterStock.com

If the Marines remove the former and not the latter, Weinstein said it wouldn't be ideal, but that it would be a step in the right direction.

"That would be a single -- not the home-run we're looking at," he said. "But it would get us on first base."

In the meantime, though, having heard nothing from the Marine Corps, Weinstein said his group is moving at "light speed toward the federal doorstep." A lawsuit, if nothing changes, is impending.

TheBlaze reached out to the Marine Corps to learn more about the language in the document as well as future plans for dealing with the MRFF complaint. We are awaiting a reply.

This, of course, isn't the first time that the issue of faith in the ranks has come up, as TheBlaze regularly covers the issue. In 2011, NPR posted a story on a "spiritual fitness" test soldiers were given -- one that asked questions about prayer and other spiritual practices to see how well each individual was faring.

Justin Griffith, a sergeant who served at Fort Bragg, N.C. at the time, took offense to the survey -- one that was developed with psychological researchers -- claiming his spiritual views and practices have nothing to do with his job as a soldier. While threats were made against this test, claiming that it is unconstitutional, the military continues to offer a Virtual Spiritual Fitness Center.

Weinstein told TheBlaze that the Army, looking to avoid a lawsuit, ended up complying with the MRFF's request to amend the test. After the military allegedly reached out, Weinstein and his group met with them and the wording was purportedly changed.

"We decided to forgo the lawsuit, because the Army made a strong effort to change this stuff," he added.

It's unclear if the Marines will follow the same blueprint.

In 2012, TheBlaze reported about atheist angst over a mandatory military program that addressed the issue of suicide. While religion was invoked as a beneficial element for servicemen and women, church-state separatists stood against its reported inclusion.

(H/T: The Week)



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