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Lawmakers question Navy chaplain's removal over intolerance accusations

Chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder, shown here holding the ceremonial oar given to him by Naval Special Warfare Command. Modder may be forced out of the Navy for allegedly scolding sailors for homosexuality and premarital sex.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LIBERTY INSTITUTE

By BILL BARTEL | The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot (TNS) | Published: April 6, 2015

(Tribune Content Agency) — Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder has never served in Hampton Roads, Va., but the Navy chaplain — who's fighting accusations that he pushed conservative Christian views about sexual relations and homosexuality on sailors — has drawn the interest of Virginia congressmen.

U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, a Chesapeake Republican and co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, is questioning the Navy's treatment of Modder. He led 34 other Republican legislators in sending a letter last week to the Secretary of the Navy asking for an explanation.

Modder was removed from his counseling duties at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command in February because he "failed to show tolerance and respect" and "discriminated against students who were of different faiths and backgrounds," according to the notice given to Modder by Capt. Jon Fahs, leader of the command in Goose Creek, S.C., near Charleston. The command trains sailors in the operation of nuclear-powered vessels.

Fahs cited a half-dozen complaints filed by sailors in his letter to Modder, including: a sailor who said Modder told him homosexuality is wrong; a female sailor who says Modder told her she was "shaming herself in the eyes of God" for having premarital sex; and a pregnant sailor who says Modder criticized her for not being married.

Modder denies the allegations. He is working with a Texas-based religious rights advocacy group called the Liberty Institute. Modder "is compelled by his sincerely held religious beliefs to offer encouragement and hope from a Biblical perspective," wrote attorney Michael Berry in his response to the Navy. And the chaplain never initiated conversations about sexuality or marriage, Berry wrote.

The case prompted the Navy's chief of chaplains, Rear Adm. Margaret Kibben, to send a letter last month to all 803 active-duty Navy, Marine and Coast Guard chaplains reminding them of their duties and promising "clearer guidance" on the religious counseling that they provide.

Without mentioning Modder, Kibben urged chaplains to contact her if they feel "compelled to act in any way that is contrary to the tenets of your faith or fear reprisal" for sharing their beliefs.

That was in response to Modder, who contacted news outlets and the Liberty Institute after being removed from his job but did not call his higher-ups, according to Kibben's office.

The Family Research Council has also pressed for Modder's reinstatement, sending an online petition with 100,000 names to the secretary of defense last week.

The letter from Forbes and other legislators, sent to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Kibben, questioned whether Modder can be disciplined in response to complaints from sailors about his views on premarital sex and homosexuality.

The legislators noted that the chaplain, with more than 19 years in the military, is sponsored by the Assemblies of God, a denomination that believes sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage are sinful.

"These beliefs do not constitute a legally viable reason to bring action against Chaplain Modder or any member of the military," the letter states. All but five of the 35 signers are members of the prayer caucus, which Forbes founded and leads. Two other Virginia congressmen, Rob Wittman of Westmoreland County and Bob Goodlatte of Shenandoah Valley, also signed.

At the center of the issue is whether Modder violated rules that chaplains must follow in counseling sessions, particularly with sailors who don't share their faith, according to Navy officials.

Military chaplains' duties include conducting religious services and counseling military personnel of their specific denomination in the tenets of their faith.

They also provide counseling to all servicemembers, regardless of beliefs, in private sessions that are requested by a servicemember. In these one-on-one meetings, chaplains are required to take an interfaith approach and not press their own religious views. The sessions can walk a fine line because a chaplain's counseling is guided by his or her own beliefs, but unless a person asks directly, a chaplain is not to offer judgment on the person's actions.

This part of military chaplains' duty is what differentiates them from civilian ministers, priests, rabbis and imams, said Christianne Witten, a spokeswoman for Kibben.

They must treat each person with "dignity, respect and compassion, irrespective of an individual's beliefs," Witten said. Navy chaplains offer military members and their families "a safe place to talk, free from judgment and shaming, with unbreakable confidentiality."

In correspondence with Modder, Fahs wrote that he was recommending the chaplain's "detachment for cause" — meaning he could be forced out of the Navy — because he found multiple allegations against Modder to be credible.

Modder failed a chaplain's "core capabilities," Fahs wrote: to be "sensitive to the religious, spiritual, moral, cultural and personal differences of those you serve." The disciplinary action, he told Modder, came from a failure to comply with counseling standards and "not the exercise of your religion."

In addition to complaints from sailors, investigators assigned by Fahs also gathered sworn statements critical of Modder from another chaplain at the South Carolina command and staff in the chaplains' office, according to Navy personnel familiar with the investigation.

Berry, speaking on behalf of his client, said Modder acknowledges meeting with the sailors involved but contends that comments he made about his beliefs were in response to their questions. His comments were not personal attacks, Berry said.

Modder, who started at the command last April, finds the charges against him offensive, Berry said.

"He doesn't even read from the Bible without permission from the person he's speaking with," the attorney said.

"If he had been aware of another chaplain who was doing the things that he was accused of doing, he would have attempted to correct that chaplain," Berry said. "This is why this is so offensive to him, that somebody would accuse him of doing things that — his exact words were, 'I find these things to be vulgar.' "

Modder, a 19-year-veteran who served much of his time in California, was questioned during the investigation. He is temporarily assigned to another unit near Charleston, where he conducts Assembly of God services and counsels those who wish to meet with him.

His case will eventually be reviewed by the Navy Personnel Command. Modder can present a defense and could be required to make his case to a panel of officers for staying in the Navy.

"We are looking for him to be restored — for the Navy to make him whole again," Berry said. "And to hold those who have taken this inappropriate action accountable."

Meanwhile, Kibben is slated to meet in the coming days with Forbes and a handful of legislators to address their concerns. The lawmakers also want to talk about the Navy's protection of religious freedom.

©2015 The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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