Congressmen Seek Army Review over Chaplain’s Punishment

Twenty four members of Congress wrote a letter (PDF) to Secretary of the Army John McHugh questioning the circumstances surrounding the Letter of Concern given to Chaplain (Capt) Joe Lawhorn.

While the Army has maintained that Chaplain Lawhorn wasn’t “punished” (and therefore there is apparently nothing to discuss), the Congressmen communicated their concerns that even the “administrative action” was chilling to rights protected under the law and Constitution:

We believe this administrative action sets a dangerous precedent for Army suicide prevention initiatives, the role of Army chaplains, and most importantly, the ability for service members to exercise and express religious beliefs, as protected under the First Amendment and reinforced by current law and DoD regulations.

The letter also raises concerns that the action against Chaplain Lawhorn was in violation of the laws passed by Congress to guarantee free speech as it pertains to religious liberty within the prior NDAAs. The members asked the Army to provide a report on the Army’s assessment of Chaplain Lawhorn’s actions with respect to the law:

We have yet to receive any indication fro the Army that these religious freedom protections were considered before issuing the Letter of Concern. We request that you provide the Army’s review of this incident as it relates to federal law, DoD regulations and Army policy. Additionally, we request that you provide an explanation of a chaplains’ role in conducting Army training.

The local chain of command likely knew it was on indefensible ground when it initially accused Chaplain Lawhorn of EO and regulation violations. Rather than withdraw the action completely, however, the commanding officer, Colonel Fivecoat, opted to dilute the Letter, removing specific accusations but allowing the general admonition to stand. There, the water is murkier. The US military chain of command is given substantial leeway to command as necessary to support the mission — but to allow a conclusion to stand after removing the defining allegations raises significant questions about the justification of the initial action itself.

As if to emphasize the broad based opposition to Col Fivecoat’s Letter of Concern, a Jewish chaplain endorser voiced support for Chaplain Lawhorn, expressing concern that the Army’s action could have a “negative consequences on all military chaplains.”

Not so oddly, Michael “Mikey” Weinstein — a self-described advocate of military religious freedom — has remained silent, despite the impact on military religious freedom these chaplains groups foresee.  Weinstein claims he “spare[s] no effort protecting the religious freedom of the women and men in our military,” yet he has neither done nor said anything in defense of religious freedom of these military chaplains.

It will be interesting to see if the Army continues to emphasize that Chaplain Lawhorn wasn’t technically “punished,” or if it acknowledges that a public ‘scolding’ can have the same (undesirable, and potentially unlawful, according to Congress) effect.

Either way, they will be influencing the atmosphere of religious liberty in the US Army.  The atmosphere is either one in which Soldiers can speak freely of their faith — the supposition of Congress and in the laws it recently passed — or it is one in which Soldiers are required to keep their faiths to themselves, under threat of “administrative action.”

Which one of those seems like “religious freedom” to you?

Also at OneNewsNow, the Christian News Network, the Global Dispatch, and the Christian Post.