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Originally published Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 9:56 PM

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Army says troops wrongly punished for skipping concert

A staff sergeant erred when he banished dozens of soldiers to their barracks and ordered them to clean up after they refused to attend a Christian concert on a Virginia Army base last year, an investigation concluded.

The Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. — A staff sergeant erred when he banished dozens of soldiers to their barracks and ordered them to clean up after they refused to attend a Christian concert on a Virginia Army base last year, an investigation concluded.

When the Army learned the soldiers were punished, the company commander apologized to them the next day, according to the investigation's findings, released Tuesday to The Associated Press.

The actions of the staff sergeant, who was not named, were referred back to his battalion commander for nonjudicial action, according to Col. Daniel Williams, a spokesman for the Army's Document and Training Command. He said any punishment, if it occurred, would be kept confidential.

The sergeant's actions in May 2010 at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Va., were not consistent with the voluntary nature of the concerts, Williams said.

"The command did not find sufficient evidence to indicate there was any malicious intent and therefore deferred any discipline down to the battalion command," Williams said.

Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which first reported complaints by the soldiers, described the investigation's conclusion as typical for the military.

"Blame some lower-ranking enlisted guy who didn't know any better," he said. "That is just a completely inappropriate and disgraceful statement."

Weinstein called the Christian concerts "an absolute attempt to establish fundamental Christianity in the military."

Williams described them as "nondenominational with no particular religious affiliation."

Two soldiers who were punished told the AP they felt pressured to attend a performance by the Christian rock group BarlowGirl, as part of what was billed as the "Commanding General's Spiritual Fitness Concerts."

The soldiers said the staff sergeant told 200 men in their barracks they could either attend or remain confined there. They were told to not use their cellphones or personal computers and to clean up their living area.

The investigation did not dispute the soldiers' statements.

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Williams said the concerts, which continue to be staged, are strictly voluntary, as they had been in May 2010.

The sergeant, Williams said, "marched a unit over to the Spiritual Fitness Concert thinking he was doing the right thing. He found out a very short time after that, no, that was not the right thing to do. He was corrected."

About 20, including several Muslims, refused to attend based on religious beliefs, the solder said.

Since then, the Army has reinforced the volunteer nature of the concerts through e-mails and training, Williams said.

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