Christian Chaplain ‘Intolerant’ for Encouraging Virtue?
Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder may be discharged from his service to the U.S. Navy for counseling sailors against homosexuality and premarital sexual relations.
WASHINGTON — A decorated Assemblies of God Navy chaplain who spent several years counseling elite Navy SEALs could be kicked out of the military for allegations that he scolded sailors regarding homosexuality and premarital sex.
Navy officials accuse Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder of being “intolerant” and “unable to function in the diverse and pluralistic environment” of his assignment at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina.
Modder’s attorney, Mike Berry, told the Register that federal law, military regulations and Navy policy protect service members’ rights of conscience and religious freedom. Berry said the law “is very clear that service members do not forfeit their First Amendment rights of religious freedom.”
“The broader impact is significant. Left unchallenged, the Navy’s actions against Chaplain Modder will have a profound, chilling effect on religious freedom and expression in the military,” said Berry, senior counsel and director of military affairs for the Liberty Institute, a religious liberty and legal defense organization.
“If a young, 19-year-old service member sees that a chaplain — the embodiment of religious expression in the military — can be punished for expressing his sincerely held religious beliefs, then that 19-year-old will not dare to engage in religious expression,” Berry said.
Modder’s case has prompted more than 100,000 people to sign a petition calling on the Navy not to discipline him. Meanwhile, several members of Congress have expressed their support for Modder, a former U.S. Marine who served in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991. He has served as a Navy chaplain for 15 years.
In a March 30 letter to Navy Secretary and Rear Admiral Margaret Kibben, the chief of Navy chaplains, the congressional members ask the Navy to ensure that all investigation be conducted “in accord with laws protecting a chaplain’s right to express and conduct himself according to his religious beliefs.”
Wrote the congressional members: “Military chaplains fill a crucial religious need that exists uniquely in the realm of military service — a need that is imperative to the well-being and operational readiness of the troops.”
‘Religious Liberty Is Being Targeted’
On March 30, the Washington-based Family Research Council and the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition delivered a petition to the Pentagon in support of Modder. The petition was signed by more than 100,000 people.
“The case of Chaplain Modder has the Navy’s attention, as it should. Religious liberty is being targeted. We not only delivered petitions, we delivered a message — we will not back down from defending the religious liberty of those in the military,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a prepared statement.
In a Feb. 17 “detachment for cause letter,” Modder’s commander cited several incidents of alleged inappropriate counseling, including one occasion where he is alleged to have told a woman that she was “shaming herself in the eyes of God for having premarital sex.”
The letter also says Modder criticized homosexuality, berated a student for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, claimed to be able to “save” homosexuals and told a staff member that she needed to be more in love with God than with her sexual partner.
‘Recipe for Disaster’
In early 2014, multiple sailors alleged discrimination against Modder by filing equal opportunity complaints. According to the detachment letter, Modder’s commanders believed that allowing Modder to continue counseling sailors was “a recipe for disaster.”
Navy officials decided that Modder “must be removed from command” and said he had violated Navy regulations requiring chaplains to show tolerance and respect for the rights of individual sailors to determine their own religious convictions. The letter alleges that “on multiple occasions [Modder] discriminated against students who were of different faiths and backgrounds.”
Modder denies any wrongdoing, and he is fighting his potential dismissal. In a video posted on the Liberty Counsel website, Modder said sailors, in private counseling sessions last year, asked him about the spiritual nature of their conduct. He says he answered their questions according to the teachings of his denomination. The sailors reportedly did not like Modder’s responses, and they filed complaints.
“For the Navy to detach me for cause, I feel betrayed, dishonored, for my 15 years, almost 20 total, for my service to my country,” said Modder, who in October 2014 received a glowing performance report calling him “the best of the best” and recommending him for a promotion.
Christianne Witten, a spokeswoman for the Navy Chaplain Corps, told the Military Times that the Navy “values and protects in policy the rights of its service members, including chaplains, to practice according to the tenets of their faith and respects the rights of each individual to determine their own religious convictions.”
Reasons for Dismissal
In a March 16 letter, Modder’s commander said he had a responsibility as a Navy officer and chaplain to be sensitive to the religious, cultural, moral and personal differences of the sailors he served.
“Your inability to comfort and counsel in a manner that was respectful of the counselee while maintaining dignity and professionalism … led you to being relieved of your duties,” Modder’s commander said.
Berry said he believes Modder’s chances of successfully defending himself are good, assuming that “those in power follow the law.” Citing federal case law and military regulations, Berry noted that the Fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act explicitly states that the armed forces cannot punish a chaplain for performing his or her duties in accordance with his or her religious beliefs.
Modder’s discharge from the Navy, Berry said, would send an unwelcome message to other chaplains who hold similar doctrinal beliefs.
“This is significant because Chaplain Modder’s beliefs, and those of his denomination, are substantially similar to the two largest endorsers of military chaplains: the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptists. Those two denominations comprise the largest majority of chaplains. The Navy has, in essence, sent a clear message that their beliefs are unwelcome.”
The Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, which provides pastoral and spiritual services to all military branches, declined to comment for this story.
Saying that religion — Judeo-Christianity in particular — is now a targeted class in a secularizing society, Berry suggested that there is a “sort of reverse ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ such that people of faith are increasingly harassed, intimidated and threatened into silence.”
Said Berry: “The trend will soon morph into blatant discrimination against people of faith. That is precisely what is happening to Chaplain Modder. He is being threatened with career-ending punishment because of what he believes.”
Modder said he is still hopeful for a positive outcome.
Said Modder, “My hope and prayer is that truth will prevail, religious liberty can be restored, and what is taken away from us, my First Amendment rights, my freedom of speech [will be restored] and [allow] for me to able to operate as a military chaplain, an ordained minister with my church, to our American military men and women.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.