Two military chaplains are suing Eric Shinseki, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, or VA, for allegedly being harassed and drummed out of a training and placement program because of their Christian faith.
Chaplains Major Steven Firtko, U.S. Army (Retired) and Lieutenant Commander Dan Klender, U.S. Navy, claim they were mocked, scolded and threatened for their faith while enrolled in the San Diego VA-DOD Clinical Pastoral Education Center program, which trains and distributes chaplains to military and VA medical centers in the San Diego area.
According to their lawsuit, Firtko and Klender allege the Center’s supervisor, Ms. Nancy Dietsch, a VA employee, derided them in classrooms and even had one of them dismissed for failing to renounce his Christian beliefs.
For example, on Sept. 24, 2012, the lawsuit claims, during a classroom discussion, Dietsch asked Firtko what he “believed faith was.”
Firtko responded by quoting Hebrews 11:1 – “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Dietsch told Firtko, on the first of several such instances according to the lawsuit, that he was not to quote the Bible in the chaplaincy program classroom.
On another incident in October, Dietsch allegedly shouted at Firtko for quoting Scripture again, banging her fist on the table and stating “it made her feel like she had been pounded over her head with a sledge hammer.”
The lawsuit also claims Dietsch told her students that the VA in general and she in particular do not allow chaplains to pray “in Jesus’ name” in public ceremonies.
Dietsch is also accused of allowing other students to deride Firtko and Klender, mocking them in front of the class and telling Firtko if he held to his beliefs on such things as evolution, salvation and homosexuality, he “did not belong in this program.” Eventually, the lawsuit states, she threatened to dismiss Firtko for refusing to recant his Christian doctrine and ordered he serve a six-week probation.
The lawsuit claims Chaplain Klender’s superior even encouraged him to challenge Dietsch for her “bias against evangelicals.”
Klender later left the program voluntarily, citing Dietsch’s alleged abuse.
Firtko, however, according to the lawsuit, was ejected from the program through a letter, signed by Dietsch, which stated his probation period was not “yielding the results” desired.
In July, Firtko, Klender and their sponsoring organization, the Conservative Baptist Association of America, filed formal complaint against Dietsch and the VA.
Now the lawsuit, filed with the help of Military-Veterans Advocacy, explains that Firtko and Klender have exhausted all administrative options and that the harassment the chaplains endured violates the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Administrative Procedures Act and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“No American choosing to serve in the armed forces should be openly ridiculed for his Christian faith, and that is most obviously true for chaplains participating in a chaplain training program,” said Commander J.B. Wells, U. S. Navy (Ret.), executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy. “Not only was the treatment these men received inappropriate, it was also a violation of federal law and the religious freedom guarantees of the First Amendment.”
The lawsuit, Conservative Baptist Association of America v. Shinseki, has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.