A U.S. Navy chaplain has been accused of violating the U.S. Constitution for teaching an optional 12-week seminar called "Lead Like Jesus" at Naval Station Newport in Rhode Island.
According to the religious liberty legal organization First Liberty Institute, Cmdr. Richard Smothers is being antagonized by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation — a group that argues for a strictly secularist interpretation of the Constitution — for promoting the seminar at the base.
MRFF sent an email demanding that Capt. Ian Johnson, commander of the Naval base, investigate Smothers and anyone else who promoted the seminar through emails or fliers. The organization argues that service members were being "voluntold" to attend the Christian-oriented event.
Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, founder of MRFF, accused Smothers of having “weaponized Christianity” in an interview with the Navy Times published in January. He added that those behind the discussions should be “visibly and aggressively investigated and punished.”
“Nothing could be more disruptive to good order and discipline and unit cohesion than a message like this,” he said.
Commenting on the matter, First Liberty noted that encouraging troops through faith is in the job description of a chaplain.
"Most chaplains are endorsed by a particular church or religious organization, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or a host of other religions. They agree to uphold that organization’s beliefs and to carry out their duties as a representative of their faith. If they don’t, they lose their endorsement," the organization said Friday.
"That’s why it’s so absurd when chaplains are attacked for sharing certain aspects of their faith — like a Christian chaplain giving a seminar about Jesus. It goes against their very job description."
Cmdr. Elizabeth Baker, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman, said in response to the complaint that no one was being coerced to attend the seminar.
“It’s not any kind of directive from the chaplain to lead like Jesus … it’s a discussion series after services only for those who volunteer to attend,” she said in a response to Navy Times.
An advisory board member of MRFF countered that discussions called “Lead like Mohammed” or “Atheist Leadership” would likewise not be "tolerated" on the base.
Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, said in an interview with Fox News earlier this month that Jesus was a leader and it's perfectly legal to study His leadership.
"It’s perfectly legal to study his leadership. In fact, some of our military leaders would do well to study Jesus’ leadership a bit more. None other than our first commander in chief, George Washington, looked to Jesus as a model of leadership.”
First Liberty Institute is the law firm that won a 7-2 victory at the United States Supreme Court last year in a case concerning the Bladensburg World War I "Peace Cross" in the case of American Legion et. al. v. American Humanist Association. The high court ruled that the monument, which has stood on public land in Maryland for approximately 50 years, does not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.