Free to Believe

Chaplain Wes Modder

Naval Nuclear Power Training Command: Goose Creek, South Carolina

Lt. Commander Wes Modder, a 19-year veteran who had served with the Navy SEALs, was stripped of his duties for sharing the good news he was hired to share.  Hired as chaplain at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command, Modder was sabotaged by his own assistant, a man who identifies as homosexual who secretly gathered enough information on Modder's beliefs and private counseling sessions to file a formal complaint.  At the time, Modder didn't realize the man identified as homosexual, but looking back, the chaplain says the young officer asked a lot of questions about homosexuality, which Modder answered as most would expect: in accordance with the Bible's teachings.  In December, representatives with the Equal Opportunity office served Modder with papers accusing him of "discrimination." 

Captain Jon Fahs—who five months earlier praised Modder as the "best of the best"—now insisted that he "failed to show tolerance and respect."  Left without a chance to defend himself, the dad of four was relieved of his duties and told to clean out his office—guilty before proven innocent.

Modder's attorney, Michael Berry, didn't deny that Chaplain Modder exercised his faith.  It was, after all, his primary role as a military chaplain.  "To be clear," Berry told Fox News's Todd Starnes, "Chaplain Modder does not dispute that during private, one-on-one pastoral care and counseling sessions, he expressed his sincerely held religious beliefs that: sexual acts outside of marriage are contrary to biblical teaching."  Shocked but not shaken, Modder indicated that he would push back.  (Hear the story in his own words here.)  "Every fiber in my being wants to run away from this—but if I do, I'm not being obedient to the Lord.  I need to stand up for righteousness... It's going to be hard for me, but it's what God has called me to do." 

Chaplain Modder indicated that the struggle for religious liberty wasn't just about him, but about every service member who deserves the right to enjoy the religious liberty they're fighting for.  "Anytime somebody wants to live their faith out—there are people who say that is offensive," Berry explained.  But when a chaplain can't speak on the tenets of his faith, what's left to say?  Why bother having chaplains at all? 

When implementing the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," (DADT) the Defense Department insisted that stories like Modder's would never happen in a post-DADT world.  In fact, the Navy—like most service branches—went so far as to reassure its ranks with a special memo about how unaffected chaplains' religious rights would be.  "Chaplains," officials explained, "will continue to have the freedom to practice their religion according to the tenets of their faith.  In the context of their religious ministry, chaplains are not required to take actions that are inconsistent with their religious beliefs (e.g. altering the content of sermons or religious counseling [emphasis added], sharing a pulpit with other chaplains or modifying forms of prayer or worship)."  However, those protections certainly eluded Modder.  When he was served with a five-page "discrimination" complaint, the chaplain's only crime was offering moral advice and guidance based on the Bible's interpretation of sexuality. 

As a Christian, that includes discouraging homosexuality, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock birth.  The Navy itself says that chaplains are to "minister" and "advise" on matters of religion, morals, ethics, and morale in accordance with—and without compromising—the tenets or requirements of their faith."  This is exactly why Family Research Council (FRC) worked to change the language of the National Defense Authorization Act last year!  With the help of conservatives in Congress, who fought to include these protections, the Pentagon is bound by federal law to "accommodate individual expressions of belief of a member of the armed forces reflecting the sincerely held conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the member and, in so far as practicable, may not use such expression of belief as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment." 

The father of four turned to Liberty Institute for help.  For three months, he tried to get his job back but the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina, where Chaplain Modder was stationed, dug in its heels on his ouster.  In a memo, Captain Fahs argued, "...[T]he decision to relieve you from your duties is based on your failure to uphold the core capabilities of chaplains as stated... and the professional standards of conduct and the guiding principles of the Chaplain Corps...  [Y]ou have the duty to be sensitive to the religious, spiritual, moral, cultural, and personal differences of those you serve.  Your inability to comfort and counsel in a matter that was respectful of the counselee while maintaining dignity and professionalism, based upon the facts contained in [attached documents] led to you being relieved of your duties." 

Later, Captain Fah went on to offer a feeble excuse that his decision wasn't based on the "exercise of religion" but on failures to comply with regulations.  Ironically, the Navy's regulations clearly state that "Chaplains minister to service members and provide advice to Commanding Officers on matters of religion, morals, ethics, and morale in accordance with—and without compromising—the tenets or requirements of their faith." 

In a shocking insult to Lt. Cdr. Modder and his calling as a chaplain, he was prohibited by his commanders from even speaking to the family or unit members after a sailor in one of his former units unexpectedly died. Modder was even barred from the base the day of the sailor’s memorial service. As Liberty Institute attorney Michael Berry said, “To deny Chaplain Modder the ability to ministry to a grieving family and other sailors is deplorable.”

At time of publication, FRC had garnered and delivered over 101,215 signatures in support of Chaplain Wes Modder's reinstatement. FRC President Tony Perkins met with officials in the Navy's Chief of Chaplains office at the Pentagon and expressed frustration that the Navy wasn't upholding the Defense Department's own law on religious liberty.

UPDATE: In early September 2015, Chaplain Modder was exonerated by the Navy and will continue to serve without a blemish on his record. For months, FRC had been working with members of Congress and the Defense Department to vindicate Chaplain Modder, while Liberty Institute argued his case before top Navy officials. The Institute's Michael Berry summed up the case well: "This is not only a great day for Chaplain Modder, but for every American who supports religious freedom in our military."

Photo credit: Courtesy of Dr. Rich Swier

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