Beliefnet News

Tim Murphy
Religion News Service

Washington – A church-state watchdog group has asked the Pentagon to investigate a Missouri Army base that sends trainees to a fundamentalist Baptist church on off days.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State accused commanders at Ford Leonard Wood of supporting an event which the group says “promotes Baptist church proselytism.”
“I think that, in itself, it is wrong to have this kind of collaboration between the military and the particular church, using the military as a recruitment tool not for military service, but for Christian membership,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the group’s executive director.
The Lebanon, Mo., church has hosted the event for Fort Leonard Wood trainees since 1971. Before the evening church service, attendees can go bowling and make calls to friends and family on cell phones provided by the church.
Americans United alleges that soldiers are “coerced” into attending the event, where they are forced to sit through a church service and asked to accept Jesus as their savior.
The Army contends the program is voluntary and makes no secret of its Baptist affiliation. The program, formerly known as the “Free Day Away,” was recently renamed “The Tabernacle Baptist Church Retreat.” A previous investigation by the base’s inspector general concluded that the event did not violate soldiers’ rights.
“Do we say only Baptists can go? Absolutely not — anyone can go,” said Mike Alley, a spokesman for the base.
Since April, trainees have been required to sign a waiver stating that they’re aware of the event’s religious affiliation, said Chaplain (Col.) Roger Heath.
“It’s just one of those things that’s an option for them to do, and it’s at no cost to the government, so it’s really a blessing for those guys to do that,” Heath said. “And if they don’t want to go, then they don’t have to.”
The number of off days a trainee receives depends on his or her training program, but some soldiers receive as few as one or two during their stay at the base. According to Americans United, soldiers who elect to stay at the base must continue to participate in training exercises and do not get the day off.
Tabernacle Baptist advertises the event on its Web site as the “largest ministry to the U.S. military in the United States” and declined to comment. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, the Rev. Don Ball said the goal is not to win converts for his church.
“I would never want to violate a person’s religious freedoms. If I do that, that gives someone the right to violate mine,” Ball said.
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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