PRESSURE! Member of Congress Demands Answers from Army about Punished Chaplain

January 29, 2015

Army on defensive after punishing chaplain for including religion during suicide prevention training


Last week, Representative Doug Collins (R-GA) sent a sharply-worded letter to the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence Deputy Commander, Brigadier General John F. King, at Fort Benning, Georgia regarding the Army’s violation of First Liberty Institute client, Chaplain (Captain) Joseph“Joe” Lawhorn’s religious liberty rights.

Chaplain Lawhorn was punished last fall after conducting suicide prevention training for his fellow soldiers, during which he shared his own personal testimony of how his Christian faith had helped him counter depression.  Chaplain Lawhorn received a prolonged ovation and many accolades—and a complaint from a single atheist soldier.

The complaint led to an article in a prominent liberal online publication which then led to a Thanksgiving Day interrogation by Chaplain Lawhorn’s Brigade Commander, Colonel David Fivecoat.  Called away from his family’s holiday celebration, Colonel Fivecoat admonished the Chaplain because his suicide prevention presentation was too Christian in its approach.  Colonel Fivecoat subsequently issued Lawhorn a “Letter of Concern” to be placed in Chaplain Lawhorn’s file.  This serious action has the potential to prematurely end the Chaplain’s stellar Army career, which includes earning the prestigious Army Ranger tab.  It also has a chilling effect on religious freedom because it sends the clear message that not even chaplains can talk about their faith.


“With suicide rates soaring in the Army, particularly within the Army Rangers, Chaplain Lawhorn’s message was potentially lifesaving,” said Mike Berry, First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs.  “And yet he was punished for it.  But what Colonel Fivecoat did is against the law.  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.”

On behalf of Chaplain Lawhorn, First Liberty Institute sent a letter to Colonel Fivecoat, demanding that the Army remove the Letter of Concern from the Chaplain’s file.  In addition, we sent a second letter seeking religious accommodation for Chaplain Lawhorn to enable him to care for “the spiritual well being of every soldier with whom [Chaplain Lawhorn] comes into contact.”

Rep. Collins—who also happens to be a military chaplain serving in the Air Force Reserve—strongly echoes First Liberty Institute’s demands on behalf of Chaplain Lawhorn in his letter.  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 letter, Rep. Collins asked to hear back from Brigadier General King by Monday, February 9, 2015.


Rep. Collins offers 5 key points in his letter, regarding the unlawful violation of Chaplain Lawhorn’s religious liberty rights:

  1. According to Army Regulation 600-20, requests for religious accommodation must be responded to within 10 working days. After Chaplain Lawhorn’s request for religious accommodation was submitted on December 17, 2014, Colonel Fivecoat should have followed the Army Regulation and approved or disapproved the request informally or in writing “within 10 working days of receipt.”  But he did not.
  2. Chaplain Lawhorn acted in accordance with DOD Instruction 1300.17, paragraph 4b.“Unless it could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline,” reads the instruction, “the Military Departments will accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs.”
  3. Chaplain Lawhorn’s presentation was reviewed by the Battalion’s Equal Opportunity (EO) Advisor and found consistent with AR 600-20 policy.In addition to AR 600-20, AR 600-63, Paragraph 1-26 directs chaplains to “share information, trends, best practices, lessons learned, and training developments” when conducting suicide training.”
  4. The issuance of a Letter of Concern to Chaplain Lawhorn sends the wrong message to other military chaplains and service members.From his own experience as a military chaplain, Rep. Collins understands that “military chaplains continue to play an important role as religious and spiritual leaders to our men and women in uniform and their families.”  If those who are serving to meet the spiritual needs of service members see that Chaplain Lawhorn is prohibited from fulfilling his responsibilities as a chaplain, then, Rep. Collins said, “this could have a chilling effect on the candid religious, spiritual, and secular advice other chaplains might wish to offer.
  5.  Even though it was a local, non-permanent filing, the Letter of Concern should be completely withdrawn from Chaplain Lawhorn’s file.“The Letter of Concern runs contrary to the right to the free exercise of religion,” Rep. Collins wrote.  This right, he said, is one “that Army Chaplains are supposedly tasked with defending.”


As pressure builds on the U.S. Army to follow their own code as well as the U.S. Constitution in the matter of Chaplain Lawhorn, this case is occurring within the backdrop of a larger struggle to defend and restore religious liberty in the U.S. military after years of “political correctness”—a struggle in which First Liberty Institute is at the “tip of the spear” and making encouraging progress.

In the past two years, First Liberty Institute has successfully protected the careers of service members threatened for their religious beliefs, and has briefed key members of Congress about what the law itself says regarding guarantees of religious freedom in the military.

In the ongoing effort to protect Chaplin Lawhorn, First Liberty Institute is grateful for the support of Rep. Collins—as well as 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.

Please join with them today and stand with Chaplain Lawhorn and all chaplains through your prayer and financial support.  The law is on the side of our nation’s military chaplains—and the religious liberty of all members of the Armed Forces—and we must not give up the fight to ensure they can continue fulfilling the mantra of the military chaplain to “bring God to soldiers, and soldiers to God.”  Thank you!

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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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