A decorated Army chaplain at Fort Bragg in North Carolina could face a possible court martial and even military prison after he explained to a soldier he could not conduct a marriage retreat that included same-sex couples because of his religious beliefs, his attorneys allege.
An Army investigator under the command of Major General Kurt Sonntag recommended that Chaplain Scott Squires be found guilty of “dereliction of duty” for taking three business days to reschedule the “Strong Bonds” marriage retreat he was prohibited from facilitating.
Squires, who was officially accused of discrimination, is endorsed by the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board (NAMB).
According to NAMB policy, chaplains are prohibited from conducting “Strong Bonds” events for same-sex couples. The policy clearly states “endorsed chaplains will not conduct or attend a wedding ceremony for any same-sex couple, bless such a union or perform counseling in support of such a union…nor offer any kind of relationship training or retreat, on or off a military installation.”
When Squires realized he could not participate in the “Strong Bonds” event, he rescheduled the conference to accommodate a lesbian couple with a chaplain who could oversee the retreat. However, the same-sex couple chose not to attend.
Had Squires participated in the marriage retreat he would have risked losing his endorsement by the Southern Baptists. Likewise, the Army requires its chaplains to adhere to their endorsers’ rules and religious tenets.
“I simply did what I’m required to do under Army regulations and my endorser’s rules,” Chaplain Squires said. “I am shocked that I would even be investigated, let alone threatened with punishment, for following the rules.”
The Army investigator determined that while Chaplain Squires is protected by the “shield of the 1st Amendment from being compelled to act in violation of his religious rules and beliefs” – there are limitations.
“The ‘shield’ that is afforded to CH Squires does not permit CH Squires, or any Soldier, to use the ‘shield’ as a ‘sword’ to cut off the rights of another,” the investigator determined.
The investigator noted that the soldier’s sexual orientation is a protected status that is prohibited from being used to preclude her from benefits, such as Army programs, to which she is otherwise entitled.
The investigator’s findings and recommendations clearly violate the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
That policy states in part “no member of the Armed Forces may require a chaplain to perform any rite, ritual or ceremony that is contrary to the conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs of the chaplain.”
“The United States Army, acting under the command of Major General Sonntag, is threatening to punish one of its chaplains because he followed the rules,” First Liberty Institute Mike Berry told me. “The Army, or Congress, must hold Major General Sonntag accountable for allowing this aggressive anti-religious hostility against its military chaplains to occur under his command.”
First Liberty Institute, one of the nation’s most prominent religious liberty law firms is representing Squires as well as Chaplain Assistant Kacie Griffin.
Griffin, too, is facing a dereliction of duty charge because she did not immediately sign up the same-sex couple for the retreat.
Berry told me federal law and Army policy both make clear that chaplains must remain faithful to the tenets of their faith.
“Major General Sonntag must immediately reject this investigation, if any chaplain under his command is to have the confidence that he or she will be protected when following military policy,” Berry says. “No chaplain should face the specter of a court martial and military prison for following the rules of their faith and the Army.”
Even more peculiar is the language used by the Army investigator — specifically the use of the words shield and sword.
In 2015 People For the American Way published an article titled, “Religious Liberty: Shield or Sword.”
And in 2016 the former interim director of the Secular Coalition for America co-authored an article titled, “Religious Liberty is a Shield and Not a Sword.”
“There is a substantial likelihood that (the investigator) manifests an impermissible hostility towards religion – conservative Christianity in particular, perhaps – that has no place in the United States Army,” Berry said.
Even more puzzling is the behavior of the same-sex couple. If they were so determined to attend the marriage retreat – why didn’t they attend?