Chaplains Group Sues VA over Religious Freedom

In a fascinating case, the Conservative Baptist Association of America has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs, essentially alleging that a VA chaplaincy training program is intentionally preventing them from sending chaplains to VA and military medical centers:

The actions of the Secretary within the San Diego VA-DOD CPE Center establishing a secular, humanist and holistic religion which excludes mainstream Judeo-Christian beliefs discriminates against CBAmerica Chaplains, prevents them from practicing their religious beliefs, have forced them out of the program and will, if not corrected, prevent future CBAMERICA Chaplains from completing the program and practicing their faith in the health care facilities serviced by the program.

The VA-DOD CPE Center is responsible for preparing chaplains to serve in military and VA medical facilites around San Diego.

The lawsuit (PDF) relies on the experiences of two CBAmerica chaplains, Chaplain (Maj) Steven Firtko, US Army (Retired) and Chaplain (LtCmdr) Dan Klender, US Navy.  Chaplain Klender eventually quit the program under duress, while Chaplain Firtko was “dismissed” from the program by the VA for unspecified reasons.

The lawsuit contains a fairly long list of examples of the conduct within the training program to which the Chaplains objected.  For example,

On or about October 22, 2012, during a classroom group discussion regarding evolution, [the instructor] Ms. Dietsch insisted that evolution was fact and that she believed mankind evolved. Chaplain Firtko stated he believed in the Genesis statement that “[i]n the beginning, God created the Heavens and Earth”. In response, Ms. Dietsch pounded her fist on the table and ordered Chaplain Firtko to not quote Scripture in the classroom, stating “it made her feel like she had been pounded over the head with a sledge hammer.”

While most reports will say the two chaplains are suing the VA, the plaintiff is actually CBAmerica. In other words, the two chaplains are not suing to obtain something for themselves; their endorser is suing to ensure its ability to send chaplains at all.  That’s a substantial claim.

The group’s lawyer, retired Navy Commander J.B. Wells, indicated the issue might be a theological disagreement with Dietsch:

“What seems to be the problem here is this particular instructor is a very liberal United Church of Christ person who really thinks that her way is the highway and the only way.”

For its part, the local VA issued a statement saying

the two men were “bullying other classmates and refusing to honor other faith groups.”

The CBAmerica and the two chaplains are working with Military Veterans Advocacy — a member of the Military Religious Freedom coalition.

Astute observers will recognize one of the chaplains.  Chaplain Firtko was noted here two years ago, when atheist Army Sgt Justin Griffith quoted Chaplain Firtko out of context and said it was “wrong” for the chaplain to carry on a conversation on Facebook.  It turned out it was Griffith who was in the wrong.

Also at Charisma News and Christian Post.