U.S. Army Chaplain Capt. Joseph "Joe" Lawhorn has been wrongly disciplined for offering spiritual guidance, including biblical references, during a suicide prevention meeting, said 24 senators and representatives in a letter.
"We are concerned that this disciplinary action violated First Amendment free speech protection that are undergirded by state reflected in the FY2013 and FY2014 NDAAs, along with the accompanying DoD regulations," states the letter from the senators, sent to Army Secretary John McHugh.
"In fulfilling his duties as chaplain, Captain Lawhorn shared both his personal struggle with depression as well as biblical references and materials in accordance with the views of his endorsing agency and complementary to personal convictions."
The lawmakers said that they have not received any indication from the Army that Lawhorn's religious freedom rights were protected, and asked for a review of the incident in relation to federal law and Army policy.
Back in December, Lawhorn received a "letter of concern" from a superior at Fort Benning for sharing his Christian faith during the training class. Colonel David G. Fivecoat argued that during the suicide prevention meeting, the chaplain "perceived to advocate Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions."
"You provided a two-sided handout that listed Army resources on one side and a biblical approach to handling depression on the other side," the letter read.
"This made it impossible for those in attendance to receive the resource information without also receiving the biblical information."
Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, argued, however, that chaplains should not be punished for doing their jobs.
"Army health experts and the American Association of Suicidology recognize spiritual health as an important part of battling depression and suicide," Crews said, noting that such experts have marked the important role of chaplains.
"Disciplining Chaplain Lawhorn for doing what he was supposed to do is not only a disservice to this honorable officer, but to the soldiers he serves."
Crews added that he's thankful to the members of Congress who've stood up against this "unacceptable action" and sought answers from McHugh.
"Regrettably, military chaplains have been increasingly under fire simply for fulfilling their important and time-honored role in supporting our service members. This is just one more incident that sets a bad precedent, effectively gagging chaplains and keeping service members from getting the support they need," the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty executive director said.