DON’T MUZZLE OUR CHAPLAINS! U.S. Congressman Calls for Chief of Army Chaplains’ Help

March 6, 2015

Violation of First Liberty Institute client Chaplain Joe Lawhorn’s religious liberty rights point to greater issue of Army religious freedom policies


In his third letter of inquiry regarding the Army’s punishment of Chaplain (Captain) Joseph “Joe” Lawhorn, Representative Doug Collins (R-GA) is now taking his unaddressed questions and concerns to Chaplain (Major General) Donald L. Rutherford, the Chief of Army Chaplains. A former commander punishedChaplain Lawhorn because, during a suicide prevention training, he shared his own personal testimony of how his Christian faith helped him counter depression.

Lawhorn, a client of First Liberty Institute, is tentatively protected, and has stated his intention to continue including his faith in suicide prevention training. Yet the situation calls for further clarity from the Army. Should they deny Lawhorn’s right to conduct his training, First Liberty Institute is prepared to take legal action that will help other chaplains exercise their religious freedom.

Seeking that clarity, Rep. Collins asks Major General Rutherford to provide his “sense of the policy guiding Chaplains as they conduct suicide prevention” and to not set “a precedent that could muzzle Chaplain’s ability to offer spiritual and secular help in the future.” Collins represents the U.S. House district where the incident occurred, and is himself a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve.

Mike Berry, First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs, stated, “I am hopeful that the latest letter from Mr. Collins will make a difference because Mr. Collins specifically asks Major General Rutherford to address whether chaplains can speak about their faith during suicide prevention training.”


Last Thanksgiving Day, Chaplain Lawhorn’s commanding officer, Colonel David Fivecoat, called the Chaplain away from his family and questioned him regarding a suicide prevention presentation Lawhorn gave to an Army Ranger battalion, which the Colonel deemed too Christian in its approach. Following 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 an ovation from the soldiers—and a complaint from a single atheist soldier. The complaint led to an article in a prominent liberal online publication which then led to the interrogation and Colonel Fivecoat’s issuing 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.

“What Colonel Fivecoat did is against the law,”explained Berry. “It violates federal law and military regulations. . . . 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.”

First Liberty Institute sent a response letter 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 our request. In our second letter dated December 19, we asked again for an in-person meeting with the Colonel and requested religious accommodation for Chaplain Lawhorn.

With the Army seemingly backing away, Chaplain Lawhorn has stated his understanding of the law as explained by First Liberty Institute has left him feeling free to conduct future suicide training just the way he did.


Rep. Collins—who understands the value of military religious freedom because of his role as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve—strongly echoed First Liberty Institute’s demands on behalf of Chaplain Lawhorn in his first letter dated January 21, 2015.  And as a Member of Congress who represents the district in which Chaplain Lawhorn was assigned during the incident, Rep. Collins has a an obvious interest in this matter.

In his second letter, Rep. Collins joined a chorus of 23 other U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators—including Representative John Fleming (R-LA), Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO), and Senator James Lankford (R-OK), among others—to the Honorable John McHugh, Secretary of the Army.

Now, in his third attempt to gain clarity, Rep. Collins wants Chaplain Rutherford to offer his guidance on how experiences like Chaplain Lawhorn’s will be addressed going forward. He wrote in his letter dated February 27, 2015:

“According to the Army’s ‘The Chief of Chaplains’ Strategic Roadmap,’ ‘every Chaplain is called upon to be a religious leader and a Soldier. The aspiration is to be 100% Soldier and 100% religious leader.’ Yet when Chaplain Lawhorn conducted the suicide prevention briefing in his role as a Chaplain, weaving in his own faith experience, he was reprimanded. I fear that this will have a negative effect on the willingness of other Chaplains to share their own journeys and restrict what candid religious, spiritual, and secular advice they might wish to offer in the future.”

Berry agrees, and despite the passage of recent laws that are intended to protect chaplains like Lawhorn, he fears the future of military chaplaincy could be in jeopardy unless the overall mess is cleaned up.

“”Chaplains are unsure of where they stand legally,” he said. “That creates a chilling effect on religious expression, which means chaplains are less effective at tending to the spiritual needs of our troops. Long-term, this could be catastrophic because a chaplaincy that is perceived to not address spiritual needs means the chaplaincy has lost its core competency. When that happens, chaplains will become obsolete as spiritual leaders.


In the ongoing effort to protect Chaplin Lawhorn, First Liberty Institute is grateful for the support of Rep. Collins—as well as a group of former military officers, representing all branches of the military and a range of religious denominations, who just yesterday sent a letter to the Secretary of the Army John McHugh, urging him to publicly correct Colonel Fivecoat’s actions and to “affirm publicly that chaplains and the spiritual resources they provide are vital in the Army’s fight against suicide.”

Letters of support and concern for Chaplain Lawhorn have also been submitted by many fellow service members and U.S. Army Rangers, Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition, and Rabbi Dovid Becker, Director of Chaplain Services for Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim (YPS). This broad and growing coalition is standing with Chaplain Lawhorn and his rights, as an Army chaplain, to care for the spiritual well being of service members and incorporate religious expression when conducting suicide prevention presentations as an authorized suicide prevention instructor.

Chaplain Lawhorn’s hope is that this will never again happen to another chaplain or service member,” added Berry. “He is determined to continue doing his job as a chaplain to the best of his ability, which includes incorporating his faith into his suicide prevention training.”

As First Liberty Institute continues the work to ensure Chaplain Lawhorn’s religious liberty rights are defended and restored, we are grateful for the ongoing financial and prayer support of American citizens like you as you stand with First Liberty Institute—as Rep. Collins so eloquently put it in his letter—“to ensure that those fighting for our freedoms are able to express those freedoms themselves.”

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About First Liberty Institute
First 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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