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An uproar has developed after a Ranger-qualified Army chaplain referenced faith in a seminar on suicide prevention.

A group called Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers made the fight public, accusing Chaplain Joe Lawhorn of using “his official position to force his personal religious beliefs on a captive military audience” in a November presentation to Army members. Lawhorn then received what amounted to a letter of reprimand from his commanding officer, Col. David G. Fivecoat, at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Now, a spokesman for Lawhorn’s sponsoring organization, retired Chaplain Ronald Crews of Grace Churches International and the Chaplain Alliance, has come to his defense.

In a letter, Crews asked Fivecoat to withdraw the reprimand.

“Chaplain Lawhorn did what good chaplains do; he was candid, genuine, and authentic,” Crews wrote. “He spoke from first person to let his soldiers know that he too deals with depression.”

Crews called Lawhorn “an outstanding Army chaplain.”

“He is one of the few Army chaplains to wear the Ranger Tab,” Crews noted. “He works hard to identify with those he serves. It is through this identification that he shared his story. Revealing his personal struggle with depression required a large measure of courage and mutual trust. Those are precisely the virtues that our Army should encourage in soldiers.”

Crews pointed out the only complaint against Lawhorn came from an outside organization, and Lawhorn’s “use of his faith journey is covered by the Right of Conscience clause passed in the FY2013 NDAA, section 533.”

“If you decide to continue with the Letter of Concern then I request a personal meeting to discuss this with you,”

The atheist group complained that nearly “the entire audience of 150 military personnel were junior in rank the (sic) the chaplain and compelled to attend this day-long session of various topics including suicide prevention.”

“The battalion commander and senior officers were in attendance and apparently condoned the mandatory sermonizing in this event.”

Jason Torpy, president of the atheist group, posted a comment.

“If evangelicals in Congress want military chaplains to enforce Christianity in their official duties, then they are getting their wish,” he said. “But if we all seek religious liberty and the mental health of our military men and women, then there should be swift action against that chaplain, his endorsing agency, and the battalion commander who participated in this wanton abuse of their military authority.”

Fivecoat’s response was a “Letter of Concern” to Lawhorn.

“During this training, you advocated, or were perceived to advocate, for Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions. This is in direct contrast with Army Regulation 600-20 and violates the Army’s Equal Opportunity Policy,” he wrote.

“During mandatory training briefings, it is imperative you create an environment of tolerance and understanding. I trust you will take the steps necessary to ensure future non-religious briefings will adhere to Army regulations and policy.”

But Crews argued Lawhorn was only speaking from his personal experience.

“Chaplain Lawhorn gave personal examples as to how he deals with depression,” he wrote. “According to some who were present, Chaplain Lawhorn made clear on multiple occasions that he provided his personal experiences of dealing with depression merely as one example among many alternatives. At no time did he say his way was the only or even the preferred way of dealing with depression. And at no time did he deny the validity of any other method.”

Crews also pointed out the battalion’s equal opportunity adviser reviewed Lawhorn’s presentation and concluded it was consistent with Army Equal Opportunity regulations and guidelines.

“No chaplain should be threatened for doing exactly what a chaplain is supposed to do,” Crews said. “Chaplain Lawhorn’s presentation was perfectly legal and protected by the Right of Conscience Clause passed by Congress in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.”

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