Traditional values groups are rallying around an Army chaplain who was rebuked by his commander for distributing information on Christianity during mandatory suicide prevention training.
Twenty nonprofit organizations dedicated to religious freedom have signed a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh, urging him to overturn action against Capt. Joseph Lawhorn, an evangelical and onetime infantryman.
His commander, Col. David Fivecoat, who heads the brigade at Fort Benning, Georgia, that molds new Rangers, issued a “letter of concern” on Thanksgiving. He took action after one soldier complained to the website MilitaryAtheists.org, which posted an article.
The atheist group later said it “appreciates and commends” Col. Fivecoat.
Capt. Lawhorn had spoken and distributed one page of religious material to soldiers Nov. 20 on how his faith helped him overcome bouts of depression. Suicide in the ranks has been a major Army problem amid deployments to long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Michael Berry, a reserve Marine Corps judge advocate who is representing Capt. Lawhorn, called Col. Fivecoat’s letter “knee-jerk.”
“He basically censured a chaplain for doing his job, for doing what chaplains are trained to do and what Army regulations in fact encourage chaplains to do,” said Mr. Berry, a lawyer at the Liberty Institute in Dallas. “Col. Fivecoat did not do his homework.”
Col. Fivecoat initially issued the letter of concern Nov. 27, Thanksgiving. He then replaced it with a letter on Dec. 8.
The first letter said the chaplain violated Army regulations and its equal opportunity policies. It said that as a result, a soldier in attendance provided information to MilitaryAtheists.org.
In the second letter, Col. Fivecoat removed references to regulations and to the atheist group. The letter said, in part:
“During this training, you were perceived to advocate Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions. 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.”
Contacted by The Washington Times, Col. Fivecoat referred questions to Army public affairs headquarters, which did not reply to a query.
Mr. Berry said Col. Fivecoat changed his letter because his human resources office informed him that Capt. Lawhorn’s actions as chaplain did not violate equal opportunity policies.
Col. Fivecoat’s action was supported by his commander, Maj. Gen. Scott Miller. The two-star general issued a statement saying a letter of concern is temporarily placed in a personnel file and is removed when a soldier changes duty station. Capt. Lawhorn is in the processing of moving to a new Army base.
Gen. Miller said, “Regarding the issue expressed by someone during the class, the role of military chaplains is to serve the religious needs of military members of a unit and their families. Their role is not to provide religious instruction during non-religious mandatory training classes.
“Chaplains may appropriately share their personal experiences, but any religious information given by a Chaplain to a military formation should be limited to an orientation of what religious services and facilities are available and how to contact Chaplains of specific faiths.”
The group supporting Capt. Lawhorn is the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition. It includes some of the most well-known names in the social conservative movement. It offers legal aid to those it believes are facing discrimination because of their Christian religion.
Overall, the coalition asserts that the military has been on an “anti-religious purge of America’s armed forces” and now endorses “harassment by left-wing anti-Christian training propaganda.”
In its Dec. 17 letter to Mr. McHugh, the coalition asked for a withdrawal of Col. Fivecoat’s letter, plus assurances that his action “will not adversely affect Chaplain’s Lawhorn’s Army career and reputation.”
“As a chaplain, Captain Lawhorn certainly pointed to his Christian faith and reliance on reading the Bible as key weapons in his fight against depression,” the coalition wrote. “At no time did he indicate that his solution was the superior way or the only way to handle depression. In fact, Chaplain Lawhorn provided a two-sided handout that included Scriptures dealing with depression and hope on one side, and secular resources on the other.
“Simply put, there was nothing wrong with his address to the soldiers. In general, those in attendance reported that Chaplain Lawhorn was an effective, persuasive speaker.”
The letter was signed by representatives of 20 groups, including retired Army Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, an ordained minister who is executive vice president of the Family Research Council.
Also signing were Gary Bauer of American Values, Elaine L. Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy and Andrea Lafferty, president of the Traditional Values Coalition.
Congress is also concerned that the military is muzzling chaplains. It approved language in last year’s defense policy bill that strengthens guarantees of religious expression. It also ordered the Pentagon to produce a survey this year of chaplains to hear of restrictions placed on their free speech.
Mr. Berry, the chaplain’s attorney, said he is seeking an accommodation at his next duty assignment so he can talk freely, without punishment, to soldiers about his religion.