Army Punishes Chaplain for Mentioning Faith
Update: Chaplain Lawhorn’s initial LOC is now available, and, as reported, it hinges entirely on (subsequently rescinded) violations of two regulations — and this interesting justification:
As a result, an individual in attendance wrote an article about the event on http://militaryatheists.org.
It would be interesting to see the Army cite a regulation that supports action against a Soldier because “a person wrote an accusation on the internet…”
Update: Now covered at the Army Times, the Christian Post, the Gospel Herald, the Daily Caller, and Opposing Views. Atheist Jason Torpy responded to the “evangelical backlash” over his accusations against the Army.
The Liberty Institute is now representing a chaplain who was punished by the US Army for mentioning his faith during a unit training day:
On November 20, 2014, Chaplain Lawhorn conducted suicide prevention training [in which he] discussed his own personal struggles and how he used the Bible to successfully combat his depression. One of the soldiers in attendance complained to an atheist group about Chaplain Lawhorn’s presentation. In response…Colonel David G. Fivecoat, issued Chaplain Lawhorn a Letter of Concern alleging that Chaplain Lawhorn “advocated for…Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions” and therefore violated Army regulations.
The complaint was shepherded by atheist and former Army Captain Jason Torpy, who published the complaint online 24 hours after the event — meaning it was public even before the Army had a chance to respond. The Army may also have been influenced by the publication of the “scandal.”
In a seeming admission the commander might have gone too far, Col Fivecoat apparently called Army Chaplain (Capt) Joseph Lawhorn back and gave him a different LOC nearly two weeks after the first. The second letter acknowledged Chaplain Lawhorn didn’t violate any Army regulation — but it left the official Army “concern” in place.
The Liberty Institute’s Mike Berry took issue, and his point may be reinforced by the LOC itself. Col Fivecoat’s letter of “concern” cited a handout which included both faith-based and Army resources:
You provided a two-sided handout that listed Army resources on one side and a biblical approach to handling depression on the other side. This made it impossible for those in attendance to receive the resource information without also receiving the biblical information.
Col Fivecoat begs the question: What is wrong with a chaplain providing both spiritual and other resources in a suicide prevention setting? Won’t the 150 people in the audience have a wide variety of needs, from spiritual to secular? In their response to Col Fivecoat, the Liberty Institute used that same handout as one point to prove Chaplain Lawhorn’s main theme was that people have a wide variety of ways of staying “resilient,” that there are many resources, and that Soldiers should “seek help, in any form:”
Chaplain Lawhorn repeatedly explained that, although faith is central to how he personally remains resilient, each soldier’s experiences and techniques might differ. Chaplain Lawhorn further explained that religion and faith are not the only methods for remaining resilient; he simply shared his own personal experience, and what works for him. Chaplain Lawhorn’s point was that soldiers experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts should seek help, in any form.
Berry points out there’s not only nothing wrong with the chaplain providing a faith-based discussion and resources, but there also is something wrong with punishing him for it:
“Not only is it lawful for a chaplain to talk about matters of faith and spirituality and religion in a suicide prevention training class – but the Army policy encourages discussion of matters of faith and spiritual wellness,” Berry told me. “The fact that one person in the class was offended changes nothing.”
That the commander had to reconsider his wording and retract the accusations of violating Army regulations speaks to the fact Chaplain Lawhorn did nothing wrong, by any objective standard. That he is still being punished speaks to a subjective standard — he just offended someone.
As recent events have made very public, Congress passed a law specifically to protect religious expression and the ability of chaplains to speak on matters of faith. For the Army to restrict such conduct (especially when it does so subjectively) it must meet a fairly high bar of military necessity — and at least one Congressman questions whether Col Fivecoat met that bar in this case.
Congressman Doug Collins has reportedly written Col Fivecoat, saying
“I find it counterintuitive to have someone lead a suicide prevention course but prohibit them from providing their personal testimony.”
He cited the Army’s Equal Opportunity policy and how it was set up to protect the personal beliefs of military personnel.
“I fear Chaplain Lawhorn’s freedom of expression was improperly singled out,” he wrote.
It is not insignificant to characterize Col Fivecoat’s LOC as subjectively “improperly singl[ing] out” Chaplain Lawhorn’s conduct. That may form the very text for a legitimate complaint.
Besides being a congressman, Collins is also Chaplain (Maj) Collins in the USAF Reserves, so he might know a thing or two about that.
It is worth noting that Chaplain Lawhorn hasn’t (apparently) used any internal Army grievance systems. To be clear, however, his representation didn’t threaten to file a lawsuit. They’ve asked for the LOC to be rescinded, and noted the LOC itself appears to violate the law. Making the incident public enables Chaplain Lawhorn to correct the public record, and it also provides a little “balance.” After all, the complaint that resulted in the LOC came not from within an Army system, but from an external atheist activist. Will the Army be as responsive to Chaplain Lawhorn as it was to the person who complained about him?
Publicizing Chaplain Lawhorn’s incident also serves as an interesting data point in the ongoing controversies over the culture of religious liberty within the US military. For those who scoff the idea that troops (even chaplains) can be punished for publicly expressing their faith, Chaplain Lawhorn provides a poignant counterpoint.
Is it really right for a chaplain, who is speaking about suicide prevention, to be punished for speaking about his experience and for providing both a faith-based and non-faith based perspective?
We’ll see what the Army has to say.