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US Army’s Spiritual Fitness Questionnaire Questioned For Constitutionality, Appropriateness

01/09/11-by Bridgette P. LaVictoire
The military appears to be taking the notion of there being no foxhole atheists a bit too far. The military, in trying to combat the epidemic of suicides, has created a set of questions regarding the “spiritual fitness” that is part of a mandatory questionnaire. The Army seems to feel that if someone is not spiritual, they need counseling.

According to the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, soldiers are being asked to respond to statements such as “I am a spiritual person” and “I believe there is a purpose for my life”. If a soldier receives a low score on the spiritual fitness portion of the questionnaire, they are told that “Spiritual fitness is an area of possible difficulty for you. … Improving your spiritual fitness should be an important goal.”

The question came to light in December. By 29 December, the atheist foundation had asked Secretary of the Army John McHugh for an immediate end to the spiritual evaluation within the Global Assessment Tool and other such programs. Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote “It is ironic that while nonbelievers are fighting to protect the freedoms for all Americans, their freedoms are being trampled upon by this Army practice.”

They are not the only ones asking for this as well. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation also demanded that McHugh end this assessment. The group, which has combated aggressive proselytizing at the US Air Force Academy, believes that this is unconstitutional.

Lieutenant Colonel David Patterson, a spokesman for the Army, did try to alleviate any concerns about officials respecting soldiers’ individual choices about religion. He stated “Although spiritual fitness is offered to all soldiers, it is not meant by any means to influence, dissuade nor entice soldiers to believe in a deity, endorse religion, or in any way state that a soldier is unfit to serve if they lack spiritual fitness.”

The GAT has been mandatory since October 2009 for those in basic training and has to be taken annually by soldiers not deployed to a combat zone. The scores are confidential and cannot be used to determine promotions according to Patterson. Captain Paul Lester, who is a research psychologist attached to the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, has said that the follow spiritual fitness modules were optional.

According to Huffington Post:

“If you score low, you are not required to take the modules,” he said. “You take it at your own volition.”

He emphasized that despite the scoring of the questionnaire, no one is considered to have failed it.

“It is not a test,” he said. “You don’t pass or fail. You take the questionnaire and we provide tailored feedback to how you do overall.”

Lester said scientific research links spirituality with positive coping skills and decreased odds of attempting suicide. “That’s what the peer-reviewed research shows,” he said.

Gaylor, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, feels that a low score on the questionnaire and the accompanying “arrogant and condescending” response could be detrimental. She said “It’s the kindo f thing that might make someone go out and commit suicide.”

Lester did say that there was ongoing analysis to determine if the assessment tool is making a positive difference in the Army, but sait it was too soon to say so publicly. Unfortunately, suicides among military personnel have remained very high this year.

The following is from Countdown and discusses this particular issue as well.

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