Phony Outrage over Alleged Religious Persecution

by Dan Quinn

Here’s another item for the “we’re not surprised”  category: a Texas religious-right group is deceitfully portraying a U.S. Army chaplain as a victim of religious persecution.

Liberty Institute, a litigation group based in Plano north of Dallas, is representing Capt. Joseph Lawhorn, an Army chaplain who ran into trouble for essentially evangelizing at a mandatory training on suicide prevention in November. His commander reprimanded him for doing so, writing in a letter:

“During this training, you were perceived to advocate Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions,” according to the letter of concern. “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.”

The letter goes on to state: “As the battalion chaplain, you are entrusted to care for the emotional wellbeing of all soldiers in the battalion. You, above all others, must be cognizant of the various beliefs held by diverse soldiers. During mandatory training briefings, it is imperative you are careful to avoid any perception you are advocating one system of beliefs over another.”

Another commander backed the reprimand:

“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.”

So the reprimand isn’t a result of the chaplain providing religious counsel to a soldier voluntarily seeking such support. Such counsel would be entirely appropriate. Instead, the chaplain chose to use a mandatory training sessions to promote his personal faith beliefs. Courts have ruled that the First Amendment prohibits government or its agents from imposing any particular religious views on others.

Not surprisingly, religious-right groups are foaming at the mouth. A coalition of groups has released a letter absurdly charging that the reprimand is an example of an “anti-religious purge of America’s armed forces” and an endorsement of “harassment by left-wing anti-Christian training propaganda.”

Attorney Michael Berry of Liberty Institute is claiming that it was wrong for the commander to reprimand Lawhorn:

“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.”

Nonsense. The job of a military chaplain is not to evangelize to a captive audience. Our friends at Americans United for Separation of Church and State point out that this is another example of “phony outrage” from the religious right:

“Those who serve in the U.S. military do, indeed, fight to protect our freedoms – and their own. But that doesn’t include the freedom to proselytize at a mandatory training event on an army base. Lawhorn was wrong to force anyone who wanted information on secular mental health resources to also receive biblical propaganda.”

Lawhorn could have let soldiers know about the various religious resources — for people of various faiths — available to those seeking such help. That would have been entirely appropriate. We — and Americans United — would stand with any chaplain punished for simply sharing his or her faith beliefs to a soldier seeking such counseling. But that’s not what happened in this case. Once again we’re seeing religious-righters lie in an effort to gin up phony outrage about mythical religious persecution in America.

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