WASHINGTON — Twenty-four members of Congress have signed a letter addressed to Army Secretary John McHugh in support of a chaplain who was recently reprimanded for citing the Bible during a suicide prevention training session.
As previously reported, Col. David Fivecoat, the commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade at Fort Benning, Ga., ordered Chaplain (CPT) Joe Lawhorn, to come to his office last Thanksgiving, and presented him with a letter expressing concern over the content of his session with the 5th Ranger Training Battalion at the University of North Georgia.
According to the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, during the training session at issue, Lawhorn spoke about his past personal struggle with depression when he was a ranger, and explained that he overcame the condition after considering the example of King David in the Scriptures. He also provided other generic resources that he thought may be helpful to those attending the session.
“During this training, you advocated, or were perceived to advocate, for Christianity and used Christian Scripture and solutions,” the letter from Fivecoat read. “This is in direct contrast with Army Regulation 600-20 and violates the Army’s Equal Opportunity Policy.”
He then strictly informed Lawhorn that he needed to be more diverse in this thinking.
“As the battalion chaplain, you are entrusted with the emotional and spiritual well-being of the soldiers in the batallion,” Fivecoat wrote. “You, above all others, must be cognizant of the various beliefs held by diverse soldiers. During mandatory training briefings, it is imperative you create an environment of tolerance and understanding.”
He advised Lawhorn that the letter would be placed in his local personnel file for up to three years, but stated that Lawhorn had several days to submit a response, after which Fivecoat would either file or withdraw the letter.
But the Alliance saw nothing wrong with Lawhorn’s presentation, so it responded to Fivecoat on the chaplain’s behalf.
“Chaplain Lawhorn did what good chaplains do; he was candid, genuine and authentic,” wrote Alliance Director Chaplain (Col.) Ron Crews, USA Retired. “He spoke from first person to let his soldiers know that he too deals with depression.”
“Revealing his personal struggle with depression required a large measure of courage and mutual trust,” he continued. “His story involves his faith journey. … I also remind you that his use of his faith journey is covered by the Right of Conscience clause…”
As Fivecoat did not rescind the reprimand, members of Congress have now taken the matter to Army Secretary John McHugh in a formal letter.
“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,” it reads.
Sens. Ted Cruz, David Vitter and Roy Blunt, and Reps. Steve Russell, Tim Huelskamp and John Kline were among the 24 legislators who signed the letter. They asked that the matter be reviewed and that religious freedom be protected.
“We commend these members of Congress for demanding answers from Secretary McHugh for this unacceptable action,” commented Crews in a news release about the correspondence. “Regrettably, military chaplains have been increasingly under fire simply for fulfilling their important and time-honored role in supporting our service members. This is just one more incident that sets a bad precedent, effectively gagging chaplains and keeping service members from getting the support they need.”