SAN DIEGO — Two California chaplains have filed suit against the secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), alleging that they had been forced out of a training and placement program because of their Christian faith.
Chaplains Major Steven Firtko and Lieutenant Commander Dan Klender state that they were repeatedly harassed and threatened while enrolled in the San Diego Clinical Pastoral Education Center program last fall and winter. The men claim that their instructor/supervisor, Nancy Dietsch, hassled them throughout their time at the center over their Biblical beliefs.
Firtko and Klender outline that they were informed during the classroom instruction period that both Dietsch and the VA “do not allow chaplains to pray in Jesus’ name in public ceremonies.” When they attempted to quote Scripture during class discussions, they were personally reprimanded.
“Ms. Dietsch informed the class she believes God could be a man or woman. Chaplain Firtko [then] recited the Lord’s Prayer, stating, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven,'” the lawsuit states. “In response, Ms. Dietsch angrily pounded her fist on the table and shouted, ‘Do not quote Scripture in this class!’”
“Ms. Dietsch insisted that evolution was fact and that she believed mankind evolved. Chaplain Firtko stated he believed in the Genesis statement that ‘[i]n the beginning, God created the Heavens and Earth,'” it alleges. “In response, Ms. Dietsch pounded her fist on the table and ordered Chaplain Firtko to not quote Scripture in the classroom, stating [that] it made her feel like she had been ‘pounded over the head with a sledge hammer.’”
On another occasion, Klender stated that he was belittled in front of the class for his Christian beliefs.
“When Chaplain Klender responded to a question during a group discussion regarding the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, CT by stating he would tell a parent whose child was a victim by stating that ‘there is evil in the world,’ Ms. Dietsch impugned his core faith beliefs stating they would not work in a clinical setting,” the suit outlines. “In the presence of the other students she said, ‘You don’t actually believe that do you?’”
The men also allege that they were informed that chaplains “do not belong in this program” who “believe your beliefs are right, and everyone else’s is wrong.”
Klender withdrew from the program, and Firtko was put on a six-week probation period after being threatened with dismissal. Firtko was eventually let go after Dietsch stated that the “probation period is not yielding the results we both desire.”
In July of this year, Firtko and Klender filed a complaint along with their sponsor, the Conservative Baptist Association of America, but after not obtaining relief, the men turned to the organization Military Veteran’s Advocacy (MVA) in Slidell, Louisiana for help. The lawsuit filed this month by the MVA seeks an injunction against the Department of Veterans Affairs —that the court prevent discrimination against Christian chaplains and that the men be reinstated into the program.
“Nobody, especially anyone in the armed forces or working for the federal government, should ever be required or coerced to abandon their religious beliefs,” attorney John B. Wells told NBC San Diego.