The Army violated a chaplain’s constitutional right of religious freedom by reprimanding him for giving spiritual advice to soldiers during a mandatory session on suicide prevention, according to a former general who mounted a campaign to support the minister.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin told the CNS
news service that the Army also broke its own regulations by sending Chaplain Joseph Lawhorn a "Letter of Concern"
after a military atheist group
"First of all, his case is important because it is an infringement on his First Amendment rights," Boykin told CNSNews.com this week.
"Secondly he is a chaplain. By definition, chaplains deal with spiritual issues, and all he was doing was explaining how his faith helped him.
"The third thing, though, is that this colonel that issued him a reprimand was in violation of the Army regulation."
Col. David G. Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade at Fort Benning, Georgia, warned Lawhorn, a captain, that he failed to "create an environment of tolerance and understanding" in the Nov. 20 suicide-prevention training briefing.
"During the training, you advocated, or were perceived to advocate, for Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions," Fivecoat wrote.
Boykin accused Fivecoat of violating the chaplain’s rights under the so-called "conscience clause" of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act
"You cannot either force a chaplain to do something that violates their conscience or prohibit them from following their faith," Boykin said.
"He was reprimanded for simply doing what he is permitted to do by not only our Constitution, but by Army regulation. So there are three very important reasons why we felt that we could not let this stand."
Boykin, chairman of the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition, defended Lawhorn in a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh and asked that the reprimand be removed from the chaplain’s personnel file.
Boykin, who is also executive vice president of the Family Research Council, also sent McHugh a petition signed by 20,000 supporters.
The Army’s reprimand followed a complaint from the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, which objected to Lawhorn’s reference to the biblical King David and how Christians cope with depression.
"Suicide is an epidemic in our military. When the military condones evangelism in mental health training, the epidemic will get worse not better," the atheist association said.
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