PUNISHED: Army Chaplain Seeks Religious Accommodation to Care for Spiritual Well Being of Soldiers

December 19, 2014

First Liberty Institute prepared to take legal action if Chaplain Lawhorn’s commanding officer denies his request



This week, First Liberty Institute sent a second letter on behalf of our client Chaplain (Captain) Joseph “Joe” Lawhorn—this time requesting a religious accommodation to his commanding officer, Colonel David Fivecoat.  You may recall that Chaplain Lawhorn was recently punished by the Army for discussing his personal faith during suicide prevention training.  The Army refused to back down from its stance . . . but with your help, we will not back down either!

In the letter dated December 17, 2014, First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs Mike Berry asserted that Chaplain Lawhorn’s “sincerely held religious beliefs demand that he cares for the spiritual well being of every soldier with whom he comes into contact.”  Moreover, federal law permits Chaplain Lawhorn to include religious expression in suicide prevention training.


Last month, on Thanksgiving Day, Chaplain Lawhorn’s commanding officer, Colonel David Fivecoat, called the Chaplain away from his family andquestioned 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 a prolonged ovation—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 Thanksgiving Day interrogation by Colonel Fivecoat.  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.


In First Liberty Institute’s response letter dated December 9, 2014, we 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.

We have again asked for an in-person meeting with the Colonel in our letter this week, and cited 10 key reasons why religious accommodation for Lawhorn is well within his rights:

1. Chaplain Lawhorn’s request for religious accommodation is consistent with Department of Defense (DOD) and Army regulations.

“Unless it could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline, the Military Departments will accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs” (DOD Instruction 1300.17, paragraph 4b).

2.    Chaplain Lawhorn’s religious expression cannot be used against him to jeopardize his career.

Sincerely held beliefs “may not be used as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment” (DOD Instruction 1300.17, paragraph 4d).

3.    The circumstances in which Chaplain Lawhorn exercised his religion—a suicide prevention presentation—are within DOD and Army regulations.

“A Service member’s exercise of religion may be denied only when the military policy, practice, or duty furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest” (DOD Instruction 1300.17, paragraph 4e[1]).

4.     It is against Army regulations to deny a soldier the ability to engage in religious expression.

The Army may not substantially burden a soldier’s sincerely held religious beliefs (AR 600-20).

5.     Chaplain Lawhorn cannot be discriminated against because of his sincerely held religious beliefs.

The Army Equal Opportunity (EO) policy is to “provide EO and fair treatment for military personnel . . . without regard to race, color, gender, religion, [and] national origin” (AR 600-20).

6.    Chaplain Lawhorn’s request for religious accommodation is consistent with and supported by Army regulations and training materials.

Suicide Prevention, A Resource Manual for the United States Army states:

“Chaplains can certainly speak from their own faith tradition . . .

“Behavioral health providers need to openly advocate spirituality and religiosity as resiliency factors.

“Emphasize the importance of spiritual health, connectivity with a faith community, and a relationship with God.

“Emphasize the phrase ‘that you persevere, that you stay alive.’ This is from a Greek word “Hupomeno” which is used in Christian scriptures, particularly in the Pauline epistles.  It is also used by James, the bishop of Jerusalem, as Jerusalem was in devastation and about to be destroyed.  He wanted all Christians, despite the persecutions and violent times, to not lose hope, to keep on enduring.  Encourage the audience to repeat this word and use it as a motto or mantra when in difficult times.”

7.     By sharing his own personal struggles—and how his faith helped him conquer his own depression—Chaplain Lawhorn is able to help others through example.

AR 600-63, paragraph 1-26 directs chaplains to “share information, trends, best practices, lessons learned, and training developments” when conducting suicide prevention training.

8.    Maintaining good spiritual health is vital in helping Service members who may be suffering from mental health issues, depression, or suicidal thoughts.

Chapters 2 and 3 of Department of the Army (DA) Pamphlet 600-24, Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, and Suicide Prevention, make clear that Army leaders are to include “spiritual fitness” as an integral component of Army suicide prevention training.

9.    Religious beliefs are a viable safeguard against suicide.

A recent “Suicide Prevention and Awareness Training for the United States Army,” prepared by the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine in conjunction with The American Association of Suicidology, states that “high spiritual resiliency” and “healthy spiritual/religious affiliation” are protective factors against suicide.

10.Refusal to grant Chaplain Lawhorn’s request is a violation of federal law.

The law is on the side of Chaplain Lawhorn—including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), a federal law that protects the American people from any federal action that substantially burdens the free exercise of sincerely held religious beliefs, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb2000bb-4—and military regulations.


In order for Chaplain Lawhorn to do his job—to fulfill the mantra of the military chaplain to “bring God to soldiers, and soldiers to God—he requests a religious accommodation.  His sincerely held religious beliefs compel him to provide both religious and secular information when he is conducting suicide prevention presentations as an authorized suicide prevention instructor.

Already, Chaplain Lawhorn’s fellow soldiers, including non-Christians, have poured out more than 30 letters of support for Chaplain Lawhorn.  The Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition also sent a letter of support this week to express “great alarm” about the disciplinary action taken against Chaplain Lawhorn and to request the withdrawal of the Letter of Concern, as well as that “assurances be provided that Colonel Fivecoat’s actions will not adversely affect Chaplain Lawhorn’s Army Career and reputation.”

Rabbi Dovid Becker, Director of Chaplain Services for Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim (YPS), a Department of Defense-authorized endorsing agency for Observant Jewish chaplains serving in the United States military, also sent a letter of support—saying that “YPS supports the right of all Army chaplains, regardless of their faith background, to incorporate faith and spiritual health into suicide prevention training.”


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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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