Chaplain Lawhorn | Cases | First Liberty

Chaplain Lawhorn’s Suicide Prevention Training Deemed Too Christian

Following Army regulations, Lawhorn gave a suicide prevention message to an Army Ranger Battalion in fall 2014 that included Lawhorn’s personal testimony of how his Christian faith had helped him counter depression.

After the training, Chaplain Lawhorn received an ovation from the soldiers—and a complaint from a single atheist soldier.

On Thanksgiving Day 2014, Chaplain Lawhorn’s commanding officer, Colonel David Fivecoat, called the Chaplain away from his family and questioned him regarding his recent suicide prevention presentation.

Colonel Fivecoat subsequently issued a “Letter of Concern” to be placed in Chaplain Lawhorn’s file. This serious action had the potential to prematurely end the Chaplain’s stellar Army career, which includes earning the prestigious Army Ranger tab.

First Liberty Claims Army’s Punishment of Lawhorn Endangers Lives

First Liberty Institute sent a response letter to the U.S. Army dated December 9, 2014, and requested removal of the “Letter of Concern” from the Chaplain’s file, as well as an in-person meeting with Colonel Fivecoat to resolve the issue amicably and without the need for escalation. Colonel Fivecoat denied First Liberty’s request.

In a second letter, First Liberty again asked Colonel Fivecoat to remove the Letter of Concern from Chaplain Lawhorn’s official record, and requested religious accommodation for Chaplain Lawhorn to continue including spiritual resiliency in his suicide prevention classes.

As Chaplain Lawhorn’s case generated media headlines, Members of Congress and former military officers also urged the Army to protect military religious freedom.

In January 2015, the Army acknowledged that the Letter of Concern would be destroyed and removed from Chaplain Lawhorn’s permanent military file.

With the Army finally complying with First Liberty’s request, First Liberty Institute advised Chaplain Lawhorn that he is free to conduct future suicide prevention training in the manner he did in the fall of 2014.

“With suicide rates soaring in the Army, Chaplain Lawhorn’s message was potentially lifesaving,” said Mike Berry, Director of Military Affairs for First Liberty, “and yet the Army tried to punish him for it. But any punishment is itself against the law. U.S. Army regulations allow chaplains to draw upon spiritual examples in formal suicide prevention efforts—indeed, they encourage the very use of spiritual examples Chaplain Lawhorn employed.”

Support for Chaplain Lawhorn

U.S. Army Rangers, including non-Christians, poured out 33 letters of support for Chaplain Lawhorn. They contain accolades such as these:

  • “the finest chaplain I have ever observed.”
  • “the Army needs more caring, compassionate, and smart individuals like Chaplain Lawhorn,”
  • “Joe simply connected with the audience on a human level that in the future will probably save someone from making a poor decision to end their own life.”

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Dear Coach Kennedy,

I would like to say thank you. Your dedication to your faith and your commitment to the positive education of our youth is truly admirable. I am deeply grateful for your military service and for taking a courageous stance in protecting religious liberty rights for teachers and administrators.

If our First Amendment protects a player’s right to kneel in protest, it certainly protects your right to kneel in prayer.

I was shocked to learn that Bremerton High School suspended you after denying your request to continue your wholesome practice of giving thanks after football games.

The Bremerton School District’s actions violate the law and send the wrong message to coaches, young people, our communities, and our nation — a message of hostility to religious freedom and intolerance toward personal religious expression.

Please know that you are not alone in this difficult time — I support you and First Liberty as you continue to fight for religious freedom! Our schools need more coaches like you, our country needs more citizens like you, and our world needs more people like you.