A personal story; private E-1 Irv Sutley, service number 1976961

A personal story; private E-1 Irv Sutley, service number 1976961

Irv Sutley

I enlisted at age 17 in the spring of 1962 and was discharged in 1970. During my first week in basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California, our training platoon, number 343, along with all other recruit formations were scheduled to take part in the mandatory weekly church services which were held every Sunday morning.


All of the new enlistees were required to attend one of four religious meetings: protestant, catholic, buddhist, or jewish. In front of a battalion formation, I refused to attend any of these compulsory activities–basing my refusal on constitutional grounds that the government has no right to compel an individual or class of persons to attend any sectarian activity. This refusal enraged my platoon’s non-commissioned officers (the infamous Marine Corps drill instructors) as well as my company’s commanding officer. But despite threats of a court-martial, along with personal and off the record warnings and threats, I was determined to hold my ground. Using the right under Naval service regulations to appeal up the chain of command under what the Department of the Navy calls the “Request Mast” procedure, I made it clear that I would take my appeal all the way to then President John F. Kennedy as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. I also indicated that if need be, I would also initiate legal action through the Federal court system in order not to be subjected to religious superstitions. Several steps up the chain of command, the base officers, apparently panicked at this show of determination.

They must have realized that a legal victory overturning this compulsory chapel would break down the boot camp structure by giving recruits the practical knowledge that they did not have to obey orders which violate their Constitutional rights. The command structure then administratively excused me from the weekly religious indoctrination.

During my eight year enlistment (all of which I spent as a Private E-1), I never saluted any officer who was a military chaplain. The chaplains wear both religious symbols on their uniforms as well as their insignia of rank. My superiors advised me that as an enlisted personnel I was required to render a salute to the chaplain’s military rank, but I countered that as an Atheist I would never salute a religious totem nor would I address a chaplain by military or religious title. When the recruits were processed for their personal identification tags (often referred to as “dog tags”), the following information was to be included: name, service number, branch of service, blood type, gas mask size, and religion. Refusing to provide any religious affiliation, I declared that I would not use or wear any tag that did not have “ATHEIST” on it. Ten days after my fellow recruits were issued their tags, the set of tags identifying me as “ATHEIST” finally arrived. This 1962 issue of these tags may have been the first for the U.S. armed forces. (Do any readers of the newsletter know of others who were successful in this area?, if so please let me know irvsutley@yahoo.com)

Also in boot camp, I had to withstand the pressure of my immediate superiors who attempted to insure 100 per cent unit participation in the San Diego area Community Chest (a precursor of today’s United Way). This fight ensued because this charity allocated monies to certain religious institutions and I would not permit even one cent to be deducted from my pay nor would I permit any contribution to be made in my name.

I have been a continuing Atheist activist since grade school where I opposed and refused to participate in my public school’s Christmas pageants and when I refused to salute the flag after the 1954 change which inserted the words “under god” into the pledge.

In the workplace, I have continued to oppose employer solicitations for charities which give to religion. More recently I have been successful in challenging government sponsored religious services in California cities (despite having been beaten on one occasion by irate Christians in one city and earlier being physically tortured while in custody by a Santa Rosa police officer who was also a police chaplain).

Currently, I am battling against police departments having and using chaplaincy programs. Having run for public office several times as an open Atheist on the Peace and Freedom Party slate, I now serve as an elected member of the Sonoma County (CA) Central Committee of the Peace and Freedom Party. While two civil rights organizations, one newspaper, and many individuals have given me encouragement and thanks for some of these struggles, I feel the most meaningful recognition for this separation work was when I received my Life Membership in American Atheists, Inc. from Dr. Madalyn Murray O’Hair at the Sacramento, California Convention in 1993. According to Dr. O’Hair, the two of us are the only people in the United States to have been arrested for openly protesting a government sponsored religious service.

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