(Photo: ENS / Sarah Bartenstein)
Two California military chaplains have filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs after they claim they were forced out of a training program by an instructor who antagonized them for their Christian beliefs.
The Conservative Baptist Association of America filed the federal lawsuit on Friday against Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki on behalf of retired Army chaplain Maj. Steven Firtko and Lt. Commander Dan Klender, a Navy chaplain. Firtko and Klender allege that they were repeatedly harassed and criticized for their Christian faith while enrolled in a San Diego Clinical Pastoral Education Center program during fall and winter 2012. The program is offered by Veterans Affairs to train chaplains to work in a Veterans Affairs hospitals.
Klender and Firtko claim in their lawsuit that the instructor of the course, Nancy Dietsch, repeatedly antagonized them for their Christian beliefs and banned them from praying in Jesus' name or reciting Bible passages while in class.
The lawsuit against Veterans Affairs outlines several incidences in which Dietsch allegedly chastised the men for their Christian faith. In one incident in October 2012, Dietsch reportedly told the class she believes God could be a man or woman. Shortly after, when Firtko recited the Lord's Prayer, stating "Our Father who Art in Heaven," Dietsch responded by "angrily pounded her fist on the table and [shouting] 'Do not quote Scripture in this class!'"
In another incident, Firtko quoted the bible when referencing the creation of earth after Dietsch said she believed in evolution as fact. After Firtko quoted the Book of Genesis to prove his point that God created earth, Dietsch asked him not to recite Scripture, saying "it made her feel like she had been pounded over the head with a sledge hammer."
In January 2012 during a class discussion, Dietsch reportedly told the class that she believed there are many different ways to heaven, and when Firtko quoted Scripture ascertaining that Christianity is the only way to heaven, the instructor reportedly responded by saying: "If you believe your beliefs are right, and everyone else's is wrong, you do not belong in this program."
Eventually, Klender withdrew from the program and Firtko was placed on a six-week probation period. He was then reportedly given a dismissal letter in February 2013 signed by Dietsch that said the "probation period is not yielding the results we both desire." The lawsuit was reportedly filed with the help of the Colorado-based Military Veterans-Advocacy group with the chaplains' sponsor, the Conservative Baptist Association of America, listed as the plaintiff.
In light of the recent lawsuit, Veterans Affairs released a statement to NBC San Diego saying Dietsch was correctly following the training handbook and Klender and Firtko had participated in "bullying other classmates and refusing to honor other faith groups."
Klender and Firtko are seeking an injunction by the court that will prevent the future "illegal discrimination and persecution of Chaplains endorsed by the [Conservative Baptist Association of America]" who may participate in future programs at the San Diego Veterans Affairs training offices.
"Anytime you tell somebody you can't pray in Jesus' name and you're a chaplain, you are acting inappropriately because you're regulating and censoring their religious rights," the plaintiffs' attorney, John B. Wells, told NBC San Diego.
"Nobody, especially anyone in the armed forces or working for the federal government, should ever be required or coerced to abandon their religious beliefs," Wells added.