Having the courage to stand up for what is right is not always an easy thing to do. One would not expect that a decorated Chaplain would have to fight for his constitutional right to religious freedom. But that is exactly what the decorated 19-year Navy chaplain Wes Modder is doing with great courage.
The U.S. Navy likes to advertise itself as “a global force for good.” But when the Navy starts trampling the constitutional rights of Chaplain Wes Modder, it’s anything but good.
Throughout his career, Chaplain Modder distinguished himself from his peers. As Chaplain for Naval Special Warfare Command, Modder deployed around the globe multiple times to support and minister to our Navy SEALs. At the end of his tour, Chaplain Modder’s commanding officer called him “the best of the best,” and recommended him for early promotion.
At his next assignment in South Carolina, Chaplain Modder’s new commander echoed those accolades, giving Chaplain Modder the highest performance ratings possible and writing that Chaplain Modder set the “clear benchmark” for professionalism.
By now, you must be thinking: “This doesn’t sound like a chaplain who should be worried about losing his constitutional rights, much less his job.” Unfortunately, there is a war occurring within the military between constitutional religious freedom and “political correctness.” In the wrong circumstances, those who do not bow at the altar of “political correctness” can be made to walk the plank. And right now, Chaplain Modder is facing the plank.
As an ordained minister, endorsed by the Assemblies of God, one of Chaplain Modder’s primary duties is to provide pastoral and spiritual counseling to service members. As a military professional, he has received extensive training on everything from maintaining confidentiality to dealing with difficult questions in a sensitive, respectful way.
Chaplain Modder has proven his expertise at his job, having conducted thousands of counseling sessions with sailors and Marines. His work has been so effective that it elicited the highest praise from his superiors.
Not everyone with whom he meets is a religious person seeking spiritual guidance, and he respects that. However, when a sailor comes to a chaplain, the sailor must recognize that the chaplain is obligated to conduct the counseling session in accordance with his religious beliefs. And recently, Chaplain Modder’s discharge of that duty to uphold the tenets of his faith apparently crossed the “political correctness” line, and led to a fiasco.
In late 2014, a handful of sailors complained about religious beliefs Chaplain Modder expressed during private counseling. These sailors asked Chaplain Modder about biblical teachings on matters such as faith, family, and marriage. When Chaplain Modder stated his beliefs, which line up with his denomination’s teachings, the sailors took offense.
Their complaints can be summarized as follows: “Chaplain Modder’s religious beliefs are not politically correct, so he should lose his job.” Incredibly, instead of acknowledging chaplains’ constitutional right of religious free exercise, Chaplain Modder’s commanding officer agreed with the disgruntled sailors. He requested that Chaplain Modder be kicked out of the Navy, threatening to end Chaplain Modder’s military career just months before his pension vests.
Isn’t it odd that when a handful of sailors disagreed with a chaplain’s religious beliefs, the U.S. Navy responded by seeking to fire the chaplain they had praised as the “best of the best” only weeks before.
As part of Chaplain Modder’s legal defense team at Liberty Institute, I am honored to have the opportunity to represent this American hero in his courageous fight for religious freedom. I believe the constitutional freedoms that exist throughout federal and military law—which were reaffirmed by Congress in 2013 and again in 2014—will prevail over unlawful political correctness. But frankly, it is deeply disturbing that our legal services are even needed. I admire the courage that Chaplain Modder exhibits. What a great man of the faith!
Chaplain Modder’s 19 years of faithful service deserve our honor and respect. What the Navy is doing to one of its best chaplains is a disgrace. It is a slap in the face to service members of faith—which includes the vast majority of our military—who wish to serve free from fear that they will be punished for expressing their beliefs. What the Navy is doing goes against all that Americans fought for in the Revolutionary War. After Congress officially established the Continental Army, it recommended “all officers and soldiers diligently to attend Divine Service.” Similarly, Congress instructed America’s fledgling Navy that “commanders of the ships of the Thirteen United Colonies are to take care that Divine Service be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon be preached on Sundays.” Clearly, Congress at that time expected Chaplains to stand strong for the faith they represent.
America cannot afford to allow this tragedy to go unchallenged. If the government can strip a chaplain of his religious freedom, then none of us is truly free.
Our troops sacrifice so that we can enjoy the blessings of freedom. Although they give up many rights to serve, religious freedom is not one of them. I salute you, Chaplain Modder, for standing up for what is right.
• Mike Berry, Esq., is Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs at the Liberty Institute, and a former U.S. Marine JAG Officer.