The Army’s Wrong-Headed (and Discriminatory) “Spiritual Fitness Test”

It’s hard to believe that the U.S. Army has something known as the “Spiritual Fitness Test.”  According to an NPR report, Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, director of something called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness,” supposedly found data that “spiritual fitness has a positive impact on quality of life, on coping and on mental health.”  Since that “finding,” the army has had a required survey for soldiers to assess their “spiritual fitness.”  One question in the survey asks a soldier to rank herself or himself on the statement: I am a spiritual person. I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all of humanity. I often find comfort in my religion and spiritual beliefs.”  Another asks to rank herself or himself on “In difficult times, I pray or meditate.”

Obviously, atheists and other non-religious soldiers will get ”low” marks on the test.  In fact, most atheists might be expected to get 100% of the questions “wrong.”  A “low” mark on the test results in an assessment that:

Spiritual fitness may be an area of difficulty… You may lack a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and to others around you. You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself. You may question your beliefs, principles and values…Improving your spiritual fitness should be an important goal.

This is so wrong-headed that it’s beyond belief.  Cornum defends the “test” as “merely a helpful resource for soldiers,” saying that: “There’s no pass-fail, nothing happens. No one sees it but the guy who takes it.”  Another spokesman for the Army, Lt. Col. David Patterson, insists that the military respects the various beliefs of soldiers:  “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.”

Yeah, right.  Giving that kind of spin is nonsensical.  How can anyone possibly believe it?  “If an official survey tells you you’re deficient in some area, the implication is that you need to improve. Otherwise, why would the Army even ask?”  Moreover, Cornum’s supposed “finding” of data that “spiritual fitness has a positive impact on quality of life, on coping and on mental health”–and the implication that a soldier without “spiritual fitness” is harming those areas–is just plain wrong.  I can find just as many studies that find that being an atheist has absolutely no negative impact on one’s quality of life, coping, and mental health.  Cornum’s “findings” go back to the completely unfounded, self-serving religious canard that a person’s value system has to be based on the religion and whatever “Bible” that religion uses.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, as the many “new atheism” books in the past 5-10 years make absolutely clear.

I do agree that “coping” and “mental health” are areas for which the Army should try to help soldiers.  But coming at those areas from “spiritual fitness’ is not the way to do it.  In fact, in the same way that the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule can accurately be said to have harmed the “coping” and “mental health” of gay and lesbian soldiers, it is easy to see how things like the “spiritual fitness test” can harm atheist and non-religious soldiers.  What the Army needs to be doing is to make sure it is not condoning discrimination toward those soldiers and not finding new ways to extend the discrimination by things like the “spiritual fitness test.”

Thankfully, people in the Army are fighting back.  There is an organization called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation that represents non-religious soldiers.  Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer who founded the group, says that the group has 220 soldiers ready to sue next week if the survey doesn’t drop the questions.


State Department Backslides on Passport Application Change that Benefits Gay Rights

Last week, I wrote about the State Department change to passport application forms that improved gender equality.  Instead of having boxes on the form for “Mother” and “Father,” the boxes would now say “Parent 1” and “Parent 2.”  Obviously, applicants with same-sex parents could not fill out the old form accurately.  They would be forced to enter inaccurate information or would have to cross out the words and substitute “Parents.”

Well, there are two problems.  First, even though the Washington Post article on which I based that post said that the change applied to “forms required for first-time passport applicants younger than16,” it appears that the changes would not have applied to all passport application forms, but only to a form called the “Consular Report of Birth Abroad” that U.S. embassies use to document the birth of a child to expatriate Americans.

And, now, the State Department has stepped back from even that change.  The form will have boxes on the forms for “Mother or Parent 1” and “Father or Parent 2.”  This is still a good change, but there was no need to backslide from the simpler “Parent 1” and “Parent 2.”  What makes the backsliding worse is that it is reported that it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who stepped back from the better change.  Supposedly, according to a State Department spokesperson, Clinton now says that she had not been aware that “Mother” and “Father” would be stricken when she signed off on a broader set of changes.  The spokesperson said that Clinton was “concerned that eliminating the ‘mother’ and ‘father’ from the forms would spark an unwanted fight with newly powerful Republican lawmakers who are calling for major cuts in foreign operations spending and have challenged administration policy in numerous areas.”

So, my first criticism is that Clinton backed down in the face of right-wing criticism.  It would not have been that difficult for her to stand her ground on the originally-reported change, especially given some previous advocacy by her for gay and lesbian rights.  And, second, when are the State Department and other government agencies going to make these kind of changes on other forms?  It’s really not a difficult change to make.

“Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry”

To coincide with the Thanksgiving holiday, the Southern Poverty Law Center has just released a paper titled Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry.  The paper concerns the exploitation of mostly undocumented immigrant women who work in the U.S. food industry and is based upon interviews with 150 women.  The women talk about having to subsist on poverty wages, being subject to wage theft, and being sexually abused.  As is well-known, the women generally do not report the abuses because it would mean that they would lose their jobs, be reported to the immigration officials, and/or be subject to even more abuse.


The Executive Summary of the report says:


Fifty years ago this Thanksgiving, CBS broadcast “Harvest of Shame,” an Edward R. Murrow documentary that chronicled the plight of migrant farmworkers. Murrow closed the program with this commentary: “The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation.”

Not much has changed.

Unfortunately, it is obvious that not much has changed in 50 years.  The SPLC report has some recommendations for Congress, the Department of Homeland Security, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Department of Labor, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the states.

While you are enjoying the Thanksgiving food, remember the plight of the many immigrant women who have worked hard to bring you the food.  Also remember their plight if you happen to get into any conversations with an anti-immigration xenophobe.



Defense Secretary Gates’ Bogus Statements on Ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

I’ve always suspected that Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ statement that he supported the elimination of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was very possibly bogus.  His coupling of his supposed support for elimination of the policy didn’t quite jibe with his repeated emphasis on the supposed need for a full year of study by the Pentagon.  In my mind, the policy should have been eliminated immediately, but the military would have time to decide exactly how to implement any changes.  (There are really no changes necessary, but I’ll give Gates the benefit of the doubt that there are some details that might have to change.)

It never would have surprised me if Gates had come back after a year of review and said that there was still a need to keep DADT.  And it also never would have surprised me if President Obama went along with Gates.  Again, Obama could have easily stopped enforcement of DADT without Congressional action and without any need for a Pentagon review.  (Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said today that “[“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”] is a policy that is going to end,” but I remain suspicious of the true intent of the Obama administration.)

Now, there is more reason to think that Gates wants to keep DADT in place.  In the wake of the great rulings by U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips that, first, in September, found DADT unconstitutional, and, second, yesterday, that rejected an Obama administration request to delay an injunction and ordered enforcement of the 17-year-old policy permanently stopped, Gates said that “I feel strongly this is an action that needs to be taken by the Congress and that it is an action that requires careful preparation, and a lot of training.  It has enormous consequences for our troops.”  That doesn’t sound like someone who really wants DADT to be eliminated, does it?  Gates also said that, besides the changes in training, regulations will need revisions and changes may be necessary to benefits and Defense Department buildings.  I agree that computer systems will need to change to enable equal benefits, and I agree that there will be training necessary for the people who administer the benefits.  But changes to “Defense Department buildings?”  I can think of no possible reason that that will have to occur.  And, theoretically, the military does not discriminate against protected classes, does it?  Therefore, all that theoretically should be necessary to stop discrimination against gays and lesbians should be to say there will be no discrimination and to add that to the ongoing anti-discrimination training.

Let’s get on with the immediate elimination of DADT.  All President Obama has to do is to decide not to appeal Judge Phillips’ rulings and tell Secretary Gates to take immediate action to end the policy.

A Conservative-dominated National Commission is Expected to Propose Raising the Social Security Age to 70

In 1983, the Social Security retirement age was raised from 65 to 67.  (67 is the full retirement age for people born after 1960.)  On December 1 of this year, the  National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is expected to issue a report that will propose raising the full retirement age from 67 to 70.  The Commission is dominated by conservatives and has the goal of issuing proposals on how to address the national deficit.  However, showing its true conservative colors, it will focus on the long-time conservative goal of cutting Social Security benefits—even though Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.  (Of course, there are many ways to reduce the deficit, but–and I’ll state the obvious here–conservatives have continually thwarted those by, among other strategies, illogically opposing any kind of new taxes and by continually pushing for tax breaks for the richest Americans.  According to the conservatives’ long-standing counterfeit philosophy, the only way to cut the deficit is to cut services, even though the deficit reached record levels under the Reagan and Bush regimes.)

NOW is campaigning to have its supporters contact their members of Congress to show strong opposition to the expected report from the Commission.  NOW says that, if the Commission’s expected proposal to raise the retirement age to 70 is enacted, the reduction in lifetime retirement benefits would be $35,419, which, along with the 1983 reduction, “would slice one-third off the average retiree’s Social Security income.”  NOW also says:

Life expectancy for some women has dropped, not increased – Contrary to the benefit-cutters’ claims, Social Security is not going broke because people are living longer. Rather, a long-range solvency challenge in Social Security comes from the widening income gap between rich and poor. Today, 16 percent of all income is not subject to the payroll tax due to the taxable earnings cap (up to $106,800 annual income) versus only 10 percent in 1983, according to the Social Security Administration. In other words, most of the income for millionaires and billionaires is not subject to the payroll tax. Raising the cap on taxable income or adjusting the payroll tax rate would eradicate the long-term Social Security budget imbalance (National Academy of Social Insurance, 2010), providing a solution that avoids any cut in benefits. Raising the retirement age, said to be justified by a supposed increase in longevity, hurts all workers despite the unequal distribution of increased life expectancy. Men at the top of earnings have experienced a life expectancy increase of 5 years since 1982 while low-income men have seen a life expectancy increase of 1.1 years. For low-income women, life expectancy has in fact decreased.

Often, the monthly Social Security check is the only source of income for elderly women. Many do not have pension income and, after a lifetime of wage discrimination and years out of the paid workforce raising children and caring for sick relatives few women have been able to save and invest sufficiently for their retirement years. If anything, an improvement in Social Security benefits should be made, rather than cutting them.


Please go to this NOW page that will allow you to send an e-mail to your member of Congress.

Target Under Fire for Anti-Gay Donations

It was only last December that the HRC released its “Buy For Equality” report on corporate equality practices, highlighting Target’s 100% rating on LGBTQ rights. But now the gay rights group has issued a clear repudiation of the retail giant, calling on them to seriously reevaluate their donation policies, or lose all support of “fair-minded individuals.”

The fallout occurred when the HRC uncovered Target’s donations to a vehemently anti-gay rights politician. Apparently the company gave $150,000 to a group that supports Tom Emmer, a Republican candidate for Minnesota governor. Tom Emmer, as is the case for many Republican politicians, does not support gay marriage; in fact, it’s an issue that’s even made it onto his campaign website. But what’s disturbing about Emmer is that he goes a step further. In a political climate where many candidates, even conservative, are attempting to walk the line and avoid being labeled as bigoted, Emmer shows no real concern in this area. In 2007, he authored a constitutional amendment to block same-sex marriage and civil unions. He also attempted to alter language in legislation to block same-sex partners from receiving any benefits in a variety of circumstances– including employment, parenting, and death.

Emmer also has had a controversial relationship with an extremist Christian group, You Can Run But You Cannot Hide (YCR) Ministry. This group isn’t just concerned with blocking political and societal equity for LGBT citizens— but has expressed support of violent measures against gay people. Advocating the recent Ugandan push to execute LGBT people, YCR leader remarked:

“[Any Muslim country that executes homosexuals] seems to be more moral than even the American Christians do…They know homosexuality is an abomination.”

Emmer has apparently donated money to the group, and has made public statements expressing his approval for the organization. Even when confronted with this particularly extreme language, Emmer commented:

“These are nice people. Are we going to agree on everything? No….but I really appreciate their passion and you know what, I respect their point of view… “

Target’s financial support for this GOP candidate has surprised many. I wrote last December on Target’s 100% approval rating from the HRC, which stood in stark contrast to competitor Wal-Mart’s 40%. In order to get this endorsement from the HRC, a group must score perfectly on inclusion of LGBTQ langauge for diversity policies, EEO policies, and also offer domestic partners benefits. Target additionally has supported gay rights within the community, including sponsoring Twin Cities Pride, and a Minnesota AIDS walk that conservative organizations shy away from.

Target’s CEO has issued an apology and explanation, confirming that it makes its donation decisions based on business interests, not social causes. But after weeks of negotiation with HRC, Target has chosen to take no corrective action, and not to offer an equivalent payment to a pro-gay organization.

That Target’s primary objective is to look out for business interests makes sense. But LGBTQ-rights advocates have a right to feel thrown under the bus by an organization they thought was socially progressive. I find Target’s lack of concern for this issue disconcerting. A symbolic $150,000 to an equality organization is a drop in the bucket for a company consistently reaching earnings higher than analyst projections, even in hard economic times. Unknowingly supporting a candidate who is anti-gay marriage is one thing– but supporting one who appears complacent with extremist, hate crime violence is indeed another.

Few Women in Senior Levels of Federal Work Force

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has just issued a new report on the percentages of workers in the federal work force.  Overall, women make up 44.1 percent of all workers.  This is up only slightly from the 42.3 percent in 2000.  However, the number of women in the highest pay levels among civil servants is appalling.  Women increased their presence in that category, but still comprise just 28.9 percent.  Here is a summary of the report.