Navy chaplain wins battle to practice Christianity
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.
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.”