Commander Denies Chaplain’s Religious Accommodation

Chaplain (LtCmdr) Wes Modder was relieved of his duties for expressing, during private counseling sessions, beliefs consistent with his endorsing agency. He appealed the dismissal, and he also filed a formal request for religious accommodation, seeking the freedom to

discuss matters of faith, marriage, family, and human sexuality from a Biblical perspective when the issue is relevant to pastoral counseling.

Shockingly, his request was denied — sort of.  Navy CAPT J.R. Fahs wrote a rambling response (PDF) that addressed the reasoning behind firing Chaplain Modder but never actually said whether the Request for Religious Accommodation was approved or denied.  Rather, CAPT Fahs implied the request was unnecessary: 

You have always had and continue to have the ability to observe and practice the tenets of your religious faith…

I find that your ability to express your religious beliefs during pastoral counseling has not been restricted or substantially burdened.

Contradictorily, CAPT Fahs then says Modder had been fired because he was not “sensitive” [emphasis added]:

You have the duty to be sensitive to the religious, spiritual, moral, cultural, and personal differences of those you serve. Your inability to comfort and counsel in a manner that was respectful of the counselee while maintaining dignity and professionalism…led to you being relieved of your duties.

At first glance, this appears to be a different stance than CAPT Fahs’ original letter. Remember, Fahs had charged Modder with, among other things, telling someone that homosexuality was “wrong.” That was a content-based allegation, not a “sensitivity”-based one — or so it might appear to an outside observer.

It would seem CAPT Fahs is taking the interesting position that saying “homosexuality is wrong” is, prima facie, “insensitive.”

In other words, Chaplain Modder expressing the content of his faith tenets is “insensitive” and therefore actionable.

To be clear, it is likely few people would defend Chaplain Modder if he had been a “jerk,” or if that had been the accusation of the dismissal — but it wasn’t. CAPT Fahs alleged that the expression of religious beliefs on marriage and sexuality — the content of what Chaplain Modder was saying — was the issue.

To say that Chaplain Modder’s religious expression during counseling has not been “restricted or substantially burdened,” as CAPT Fahs did, while simultaneously saying he was fired because his religious expression during counseling was not “sensitive” is a stunning self-contradiction.

The Navy seems to be floundering in its efforts to justify the attack on the chaplain. They are required to say the Chaplain can exercise his faith — because to say otherwise would be tantamount to an admission of violating the law.  But they then have to figure out how to justify the adverse action; in this case, they have chosen to say the content of his expression was “insensitive.” The Navy is telling the chaplain he can only say things in counseling if they are inoffensive to the counselee. It is a worthy effort to defend the punishment, but it must ultimately fail.

A chaplain has a recognized obligation to be a representative of his faith, even as he serves in the military. It is both understood and expected that a military chaplain may counsel from his faith perspective. To demand otherwise appears contrary to both common sense and the statements of the Department of Defense to date.

It will be interesting to see what the Navy, institutionally, finally says about Chaplain Modder’s case.