Boykin, chair of the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition (RMRFC), also said that the treatment of Lawhorn violated the chaplain’s constitutional rights.
“First of all, his case is important because it is an infringement on his First Amendment rights,” Boykin told CNSNews.com.
“Secondly he is a chaplain. By definition, chaplains deal with spiritual issues, and all he was doing was explaining how his faith helped him.
“The third thing, though, is that this colonel that issued him a reprimand was in violation of the Army regulation.”
Lawhorn received a “Letter of Concern” from his commandering officer after the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) posted a photo of a double-sided handout from his session, which they received from a member of the 5th Ranger Training Battalion who was in attendance.
The MAAF complained that Lawhorn used the example of the adversity suffered by the Old Testament King David on the front of the hand-out for advice on overcoming distress. The back offered both Christian and secular counseling resources.
“You provided a two-sided handout that listed Army resources on one side and a biblical approach to handling depression on the other side,” Col. David Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade at Ft. Benning, Georgia wrote following Lawhorn’s Nov. 20th training session. “This made it impossible for those in attendance to receive the resource information without also receiving the biblical information.”
Lawhorn was cautioned to be “careful to avoid any perception you are advocating one system of beliefs over another.”
Boykin explained that by issuing the Letter of Concern to Lawhorn, Col. Fivecoat was himself in violation of an Army regulation that “you cannot either force a chaplain to do something that violates their conscience or prohibit them from following their faith.”
This is an apparent reference to Section 533 of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), also known as the “conscience clause,” which protects the “rights of conscience of members of the Armed Forces and chaplains of such members.”
“He was reprimanded for simply doing what he is permitted to do by not only our Constitution, but by Army regulation,” Boykin emphasized. “So there are three very important reasons why we felt that we could not let this stand.”
The RMRFC sent a letter to Secretary of the Army John McHugh Wednesday to express its alarm over the reprimand. The coalition is asking that the Army withdraw the Letter of Concern, which would otherwise remain in Lawhorn’s file for up to three years.
“An Army chaplain is not required by the Constitution, any statute, or any regulation to behave like a secular counselor. The chaplain’s perspective is spiritual and religious,” the RMRFC points out in the letter.
“As a chaplain, Captain Lawhorn certainly pointed to his Christian faith and reliance on reading the Bible as key weapons in his fight against depression. At no time did he indicate that his solution was the superior way or the only way to handle depression,” the coalition noted.
“In fact, Chaplain Lawhorn provided a two-sided handout that included Scriptures dealing with depression and hope on one side, and secular resources on the other.”
The letter concludes with a request that “assurances be provided that Colonel Fivecoat’s actions will not adversely affect Chaplain Lawhorn’s Army career and reputation.”
“What our coalition is asking for: rescind that letter and in doing so what you’re saying is that this was done in error and we are rescinding it as a result of that error,” Boykin explained, adding: “I want this colonel who did this, I want somebody in the chain of command to sit him down and explain to him what the Constitution provides for in terms of freedom of religion as well as freedom of speech.”
Boykin also told CNSNews.com that this incident “is another example of the persecution, particularly of Christians” in the U.S. military, which he says is “becoming more and more of a problem over the last couple of years.”
“We just simply cannot ignore this nor let it stand,” he said. “Even if there’s no long-term impact on the chaplain professionally, it can’t stand because commanders cannot abuse their power by abusing their subordinates over their conscience and their faith.”
The Family Research Council (FRC), of which Boykin is executive vice president, also sent a petition to Secretary McHugh asking him “to rescind the Letter of Concern and to reprimand Col. Fivecoat for violating protections afforded to all military personnel enacted into law in the National Defense Authorization Act.”
The petition currently has over 20,000 signatures.