RELI­GIOUS FREE­DOM

Navy chap­lain wins bat­tle to prac­tice Chris­tian­ity

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY CH­ERYL WETZSTEIN

Lt. Cmdr. Wes­ley J. “Wes” Mod­der, a dec­o­rated Navy chap­lain with nearly 20 years of un­blem­ished ser­vice, re­mem­bers vividly the mo­ment he told his wife he could go back to the call­ing he loved, hav­ing been re­in­stated af­ter a bit­ter bat­tle that pit­ted reli­gious free­dom and in­di­vid­ual con­science against the man­date to re­spect gay and women’s rights.

Chap­lain Mod­der said he drove home Sept. 3, took his wife into the bed­room and told her about the re­in­state­ment let­ter he re­ceived that day.

“We prayed. We cried. We thanked the Lord,” he said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “We think the Navy did the right thing.”

Un­til that let­ter ar­rived, the chap­lain was star­ing at the end of a long and dis­tin­guished ca­reer, hav­ing re­ceived a “de­tach­ment for cause” no­ti­fi­ca­tion for “sub­stan­dard per­for­mance of duty” and “in­tol­er­ant” treat­ment of gay and un­wed preg­nant per­son­nel who came to him for com­fort and coun­sel­ing. Crit­ics ac­cused the chap­lain of us­ing his Chris­tian faith to “be­lit­tle” gay and fe­male sailors, a sym­bol of what they said was a larger push within the mil­i­tary to pro­mote fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tian ideas in the ranks.

But the chap­lain also at­tracted a fierce band of de­fend­ers, in­clud­ing mem­bers of Congress and reli­gious free­dom ad­vo­cates, who saw in his or­deal just one more skir­mish in the bat­tle to pro­tect reli­gious be­liefs in the so­cial and le­gal cli­mate that cham­pi­ons sex­ual and mi­nor­ity rights.

Fed­eral courts have made it clear that “reli­gious free­dom doesn’t stop just be­cause you join the mil­i­tary,” said Michael Berry, a lawyer with Lib­erty In­sti­tute, which as­sisted in Chap­lain Mod­der’s case.

Rep. Doug Collins, Georgia Repub­li­can and a South­ern Bap­tist min­is­ter who is the only ac­tive mil­i­tary chap­lain in Congress, also hailed the chap­lain’s vindi­ca­tion.

The out­come showed that “when you high­light what I be­lieve is right, there is still a sys­tem in place in which things can get re­solved,” said Mr. Collins, who per­son­ally in­ves­ti­gated the mat­ter. “Un­for­tu­nately, [the case] had to go through a very pub­lic air­ing to get there. But it got there, and I think that’s a pos­i­tive step,” he said.

Col. Ron Crews, a re­tired chap­lain and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Chap­lain Al­liance for Reli­gious Lib­erty, said he hopes the Navy’s de­ci­sion “will pro­vide en­cour­age­ment to other chap­lains who may fear reprisal sim­ply for liv­ing out their be­liefs.”

Other ob­servers took a dif­fer­ent view of the chap­lain’s re­in­state­ment.

“Plat­i­tudes about re­spect are no sub­sti­tute for a clear pol­icy,” said Ja­son Torpy, pres­i­dent of the Mil­i­tary As­so­ci­a­tion of Athe­ists & Free­thinkers, who sup­ported the dis­missal.

The Navy’s de­ci­sion, he said, “leaves un­clear whether it is ac­cept­able for se­nior of­fi­cers to use the Bi­ble to jus­tify be­lit­tling gay and women sailors.”

Michael “Mikey” We­in­stein, founder of the Mil­i­tary Reli­gious Free­dom Foundation, de­clined to com­ment on Chap­lain Mod­der’s case be­cause of the po­ten­tial for fed­eral lit­i­ga­tion on the mat­ter.

But, in gen­eral, Mr. We­in­stein said, the foundation be­lieves “fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tian op­pres­sion” is ram­pant in the U.S. mil­i­tary, lead­ing to abuse of help­less sub­or­di­nates and a lack of sup­port for mil­i­tary com­man­ders and of­fi­cers who try to stand up to it.

For Chap­lain Mod­der, how­ever, the first pri­or­ity is set­tling into his as­sign­ment at Naval Base San Diego, where he re­ported for duty Mon­day, and try­ing to put be­hind the emo­tional roller coaster he has been rid­ing since last year. His wife and their four chil­dren, he said, en­dured many an­guished mo­ments as the le­gal bat­tle played out.

“I was pre­pared to lose my ca­reer,” he said. It is “very de­mand­ing emo­tion­ally” to stand up to a mil­i­tary em­ployer af­ter years of ser­vice and un­ques­tion­ingly obey­ing count­less or­ders.

But it would have been equally daunt­ing if he chose not to stand up “for my reli­gious lib­erty and ev­ery­body else’s,” he said.

The Navy’s long­time slo­gan for its pro­fes­sional chap­laincy is “Co­op­er­a­tion With­out Com­pro­mise,” Chap­lain Mod­der re­called. “You just don’t want to in­vert that.”

Of­fi­cer and a cler­gy­man

As of De­cem­ber, the U.S. mil­i­tary had 2,837 ac­tive­duty chap­lains, ac­cord­ing to the De­fense Depart­ment. The South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion had the most, with 437 mem­bers, and the Ro­man Catholic Church had 200 chap­lains. An­other 26 chap­lains were Jewish, and one chap­lain was Hindu.

Like all other mil­i­tary chap­lains, Chap­lain Mod­der is re­quired by his en­dors­ing re­li­gion — in his case, the As­sem­blies of God, the world’s largest Pen­te­costal de­nom­i­na­tion — to coun­sel mil­i­tary per­son­nel ac­cord­ing to those be­liefs.

He is also re­quired un­der mil­i­tary code to of­fer pro­fes­sional pas­toral care, a job de­scribed as “bring[ing] God to sailors and sailors to God.”

Un­til a year ago, Chap­lain Mod­der, who also has served in the U.S. Marine Corps and has a doc­tor­ate in mil­i­tary min­istry, nav­i­gated th­ese two man­dates with skill and dis­tinc­tion, ac­cord­ing to the many of­fi­cial ac­co­lades he re­ceived.

Late last year, how­ever, an of­fi­cial com­plaint was lodged say­ing he dis­crim­i­nated against sev­eral peo­ple in con­fi­den­tial coun­sel­ing ses­sions.

Chap­lain Mod­der later learned that his former as­sis­tant — who asked him many ques­tions about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity dur­ing his brief time in his of­fice — was in a same-sex mar­riage, and had some­how dis­cov­ered the names of peo­ple Chap­lain Mod­der had coun­seled.

Now-re­tired Navy Capt. Jon R. Fahs acted on the equal-op­por­tu­nity com­plaint and, af­ter a week­s­long in­ves­ti­ga­tion, no­ti­fied Chap­lain Mod­der on Feb. 17 that he had “failed to show tol­er­ance and re­spect for the rights of in­di­vid­u­als to de­ter­mine their own reli­gious con­vic­tions,” and was “un­able to func­tion in the di­verse and plu­ral­is­tic en­vi­ron­ment” of the Naval Nu­clear Power Train­ing Com­mand in Goose Creek, South Car­olina.

Specif­i­cally, Chap­lain Mod­der re­port­edly told a fe­male stu­dent that she was “sham­ing her­self in the eyes of god” for hav­ing pre­mar­i­tal sex, and told other stu­dents that “ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was wrong” and that anal sex was es­sen­tially un­nat­u­ral, Capt. Fahs wrote in his Feb. 17 “de­tach­ment for cause” no­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Chap­lain Mod­der also re­port­edly told a staff mem­ber that “she should be in love with God and not her part­ner” and “be­rated a preg­nant stu­dent for be­com­ing preg­nant while not mar­ried,” the no­ti­fi­ca­tion said.

“LCDR Mod­der is in­tol­er­ant and will not fol­low Navy pol­icy,” Capt. Fahs’ no­tice said.

The fall­out was se­vere. Chap­lain Mod­der was re­lieved of his du­ties, re­moved from the pro­mo­tion list and re­as­signed to a chapel in Charleston, South Car­olina, where he was in­structed not to coun­sel any­one.

“I had no idea I was go­ing to have a min­istry au­dit check,” Chap­lain Mod­der told The Wash­ing­ton Times. But “every­thing was in ques­tion: my job, my per­for­mance, my work ethic, my coun­sel­ing.”

One of the Bi­ble verses he re­lied on was Daniel 3:18: “But even if he does not [save us], let it be known to you, O king, that we are not go­ing to serve your gods or wor­ship the golden im­age that you have set up.”

The other was 1 Pe­ter 4: 12-19, which says in part, “Do not be sur­prised at the fiery or­deal that has come on you to test you. … But re­joice inas­much as you par­tic­i­pate in the suf­fer­ings of Christ, so that you may be over­joyed when his glory is re­vealed.”

Chap­lain Mod­der also en­gaged Lib­erty In­sti­tute in Plano, Texas, to fight the charges.

“That the Navy would use Chap­lain Mod­der’s pri­vate, reli­gious ex­pres­sion against him is a be­trayal of the trust and con­fi­dence that is sup­posed to ex­ist be­tween the chap­lain and the ser­vice mem­ber dur­ing pas­toral coun­sel­ing ses­sions,” Mr. Berry of Lib­erty In­sti­tute wrote to Capt. Fahs in March.

Through the Lib­erty In­sti­tute, Chap­lain Mod­der de­nied the ac­cu­sa­tions. He said he ex­plained that he is an or­dained min­is­ter to those he coun­sels and thus an­swers ques­tions “from a bi­b­li­cal world­view, con­sis­tent with the tenets of his en­dors­ing de­nom­i­na­tion.”

He also said his prac­tice is “al­ways to lis­ten” and let peo­ple to bring up the top­ics they wish to dis­cuss.

“Chap­lain Mod­der cat­e­gor­i­cally de­nies that he ini­ti­ated con­ver­sa­tions about mar­riage or hu­man sex­u­al­ity,” wrote Mr. Berry, who is a former Marine judge ad­vo­cate gen­eral of­fi­cer and di­rec­tor of mil­i­tary af­fairs at the Lib­erty In­sti­tute.

But Capt. Fahs de­nied the chap­lain’s re­quest for an ac­com­mo­da­tion for his reli­gious be­liefs. He said Chap­lain Mod­der was un­able to “com­fort and coun­sel” per­son­nel in a way that “was re­spect­ful” of them. “I find the mul­ti­ple al­le­ga­tions [of mis­be­hav­ior] … to be cred­i­ble,” wrote Capt. Fahs, the com­mand­ing of­fi­cer at the time.

EARNIE GRAFTON/SPE­CIAL TO THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Wes­ley J. “Wes” Mod­der said he and his fam­ily have been on an emo­tional roller coaster since he re­ceived a “de­tach­ment for cause” no­ti­fi­ca­tion for “sub­stan­dard per­for­mance of duty.”

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