Atheist Soldier Drops Lawsuit, Plans to Leave Army

TOPEKA, Kan. - An atheist soldier who accused U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Defense Department of violating his religious freedom dropped the lawsuit Friday, citing his plans to leave the Army next spring.

But the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which filed the suit in 2007 with Pfc. Jeremy Hall, still plans to pursue allegations of widespread religious discrimination within the military in a separate lawsuit it filed with a second atheist soldier.

Attorneys for Hall filed papers Friday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., to dismiss the case, said Mikey Weinstein, head of the foundation.

Hall and the foundation sued over Hall's claims that a major prevented him from holding an atheist meeting while deployed in Iraq. That officer denied the allegation.

Dropping the lawsuit avoids a fight over whether Hall has standing to sue if he is no longer in the Army, which he plans to leave in 2009, Weinstein said.

"He broke the barrier for us to have more people come forward," Weinstein said of Hall. "He served as a shining light that attracted all the other potential witnesses."

This is the second time Hall, 24, and the foundation have withdrawn the lawsuit. They refiled in March, adding claims that Hall was threatened with retaliation from other soldiers and officers, including the blocking of his promotion to sergeant and a telephone death threat against him and his wife that was traced to another soldier.

Fort Riley investigators said that the threat wasn't serious and that the soldier who left the message was intoxicated.

Spc. Dustin Chalker, a combat medic who filed the second lawsuit in October, also named Gates as a defendant. Chalker alleged he was required to attend three events from December 2007 to May 2008 at Fort Riley at which Christian prayers were delivered.

The lawsuit cited examples of the military's religious discrimination by fundamentalist Christians, including programs for soldiers, presentations by "anti-Muslim activists" and a "spiritual handbook" for soldiers endorsed by Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Defense officials have declined to comment on either lawsuit but have said the military has a longstanding policy against discrimination that preserves religious freedom for all in uniform. It also has said complaints about alleged religious discrimination are rare.

Weinstein said Hall recently was transferred to another military police company. He plans to attend college and serve as a liaison with the foundation on religious freedom issues.