Congressman Defends Army Chaplain Under Fire For Exercising Religious Liberty

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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In early December, Army Chaplain Joseph Lawhorn received a warning letter from his superior after listing the Bible as a resource in a suicide prevention class. Despite public backlash, Col. David Fivecoat has still refused to retract the letter, but Rep. Doug Collins from Georgia isn’t about to let it go.

“It’s political correctness and intimidation,” Collins, also an Air Force Reserve chaplain who served in Iraq, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Political correctness in military culture stems back to internal strife within the Chaplain Corps in the 1990s,” Collins added. “Some non-profits have also worked hard over the last 10 to 15 years to threaten and intimidate the military into crushing religious freedom.”

The original incident took place at the University of North Georgia. Lawhorn provided a handout at mandatory suicide prevention training for the 5th Ranger Training Battalion. The handout listed Bible verses on one side. (RELATED: Army Chaplain Refuses To Be Censored On Bible)

After receiving an alert from a soldier who attended the training, Fivecoat issued Lawhorn a “letter of concern” in which he stated that Lawhorn was to refrain from mentioning the Bible, as it disrespects diversity, and at least on the surface appears to advocate for one belief system over another. Fivecoat reissued the letter on Dec. 8 and removed references to violating army regulations. Maj. Gen. Scott Miller supported Fivecoat’s actions.

Since then, 20 non-profit organizations have signed on a letter of protest addressed to Secretary of the Army John McHugh, but the letter has not been removed from Lawhorn’s personnel file. In late January, Collins wrote a letter to Brig. Gen. John F. King stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia requesting that the letter be immediately withdrawn, arguing that Lawhorn’s right to the free exercise of religion should be respected. Collins also noted that Lawhorn shared secular materials.

According to DOD Instruction 1300.17, paragraph 4b, religious freedom is protected “unless it could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline.” The Army’s “Chief of Chaplains Strategic Roadmap” clearly affirms that the role of every chaplain is “to be a religious leader and a soldier. The aspiration is to be 100% Soldier and 100% religious leader.”

Additionally, the Battalion’s Equal Opportunity Advisor reviewed Lawhorn’s presentation prior to its execution and declared it passed AR 600-20 policy, which among other issues, discusses religious accommodation.

“This has scaled up over the last 15 years, and it’s got everyone on heightened alert,” Collins told TheDCNF. “A subculture has emerged where if superiors are aggressive in terms of cracking down on religious freedom, it looks good to their superiors. The problem is that aggressive enforcement violates religious freedom.”

Though it’s nothing new, the debate over religious expression in the military has recently become a hot topic. Just in this last week, a recruiting office in Phoenix had to take down a sign which read “on a mission for both God and country.” And last year, the U.S. Air Force Academy had to pull down a Bible verse on a whiteboard outside a cadet’s room.

Instances like this have become much more frequent, and often occur following sharp rebuke from interest groups outside the ranks.

“This case didn’t start from any local concern at the base,” Collins told TheDCNF. “It came from outside the base. There are some senior officers who are using this to enhance their standing with higher-ups.”

Congress is up in arms, as well, including language in last year’s defense bill to ensure that religious freedom is respected in the military. According to the legislation, the Pentagon must conduct a survey this year of chaplains to determine if their free speech rights have been violated.

“Chaplain Lawhorn drew upon his personal experience and faith to offer potentially life-saving suggestions to colleagues in need,” Collins wrote. “I believe this [Letter of Concern] could have a chilling effect on the candid religious, spiritual and other secular advice chaplains wish to offer.”

Lawhorn is currently relocating to a new base.

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Jonah Bennett