CHAPLAIN CASE: Deadline December 15 for U.S. Army to Respond to Liberty Institute

December 11, 2014

As reported in the national media this week, Liberty Institute has demanded that the United States Army revoke an unlawful violation of the religious liberty rights of our client, Chaplain (Captain) Joseph “Joe” Lawhorn.  Liberty Institute sent a letter to Chaplain Lawhorn’s commander at Fort Benning, Georgia, earlier this week, asking for a response by Monday, December 15.


“What happened to Chaplain Lawhorn violates the Constitution, federal law, and military regulations,” stated Kelly Shackelford, Liberty Institute President & CEO.  “And tragically, it’s a violation that could also jeopardize the lives of soldiers if chaplains are restricted in their efforts to prevent suicides.”


Chaplain Lawhorn’s commanding officer, Colonel David Fivecoat, abruptly called him away from his family on Thanksgiving Day, November 27, and questioned him regarding a suicide prevention presentation Lawhorn gave to an Army Ranger battalion, which the Colonel deemed too Christian in its approach. 

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

What was the cause of this harsh measure?


In accordance with Army regulations, Lawhorn had recently given an extremely effective suicide prevention message that included Lawhorn’s own personal testimony of how his Christian faith had helped him counter depression. 

Chaplain Lawhorn received a prolonged ovation from his audience of grateful Army Ranger students—and the complaint of a single atheist soldier to the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF).  The MAAF contacted the liberal publication TheHuffington Post, which publicized the complaint in a story critical of religion in the military. 

The article led to COL Fivecoat’s Thanksgiving Day interrogation of Chaplain Lawhorn and his issuing the “Letter of Concern” against the chaplain.  The Letter states that Lawhorn “advocated for . . . Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions” and therefore violated Army regulations.  


Chaplain Lawhorn contacted Mike Berry, Senior Counsel for Liberty Institute and Director of Military Affairs.  Berry is a former U.S. Marine JAG officer who, at Liberty Institute, successfully protected the careers of Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Phillip Monkand Army Lieutenant Colonel Charles Pudil over similar violations of religious liberty.

Berry testified before the House Armed Services Committee just last month on the continuing battle for religious liberty in the U.S. Military, offering members of Congress expert legal analysis and recommendations to correct religious discrimination.

As Liberty Institute sent its letter to Col. Fivecoat, asking that Chaplain Lawhorn’s name be cleared and requesting a formal meeting, national media picked up the story.  Within 24 hours, one article was shared thousands of times on Facebook.  In addition, word spread throughout the military that a beloved chaplain was being unjustly punished.  Emails and texts of support—literally from around the world and from people of different faiths—poured in to Chaplain Lawhorn.

The U.S. Army also received alarmed communication from Representative Doug Collins (R-GA), a member of Congress who represents the district in which Fort Benning is located.  Berry reports that other lawmakers have likewise expressed concern over the incident.


“This is a double tragedy,” said Berry.  “With suicide rates soaring in the Army, particularly within the Army Rangers, Chaplain Lawhorn’s message was potentially lifesaving—and yet he has been punished for it.  But this punishment is against the law.  It violates federal law and military regulations.  As our response letter points out, U.S. Army regulations not only allow chaplains to draw upon spiritual examples in formal suicide prevention efforts—they encourage the very use of spiritual examples Chaplain Lawhorn employed.”

In fact, earlier this week a Military Timessurvey found that morale of active duty troops to be significantly lower than 5 years ago.

Berry added, “This is outrageous and will not stand.  The law is on Chaplain Lawhorn’s side.  We have respectfully requested a meeting and amicable settlement with the commanding officer, and nothing less than a public clearing of Chaplain Lawhorn’s name and reputation.”


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

  •  “the best chaplain I’ve worked with”
  • “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”
  • “He would never force his religious beliefs on anyone”
  • “stellar”
  • “the finest chaplain I have ever observed” 


Now Chaplain Lawhorn—and all those he can help—needs your support.  An Army commander unlawfully gave Chaplain Lawhorn a “Letter of Concern.”  Please sign your own “Letter of Concern to the U.S. Army for Violating Religious Freedom.” And when you sign, feel free to donate to help us defend heroes like Chaplain Lawhorn at no charge.

Liberty Institute—the largest legal organization dedicated solely to defending religious liberty in America—has successfully protected other members of the U.S. military whose religious rights were violated and their careers threatened.  With your help, we will win for Chaplain Lawhorn and continue to defend and restore religious liberty for our service members.

Read Todd Starnes’ article about the case.

Read our December 9, 2014 letter.  

About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit

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