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Army chaplain fights charge of unlawful discrimination

WASHINGTON (BP) — Southern Baptist chaplain Jerry Scott Squires is fighting a U.S. Army investigator’s charge of unlawful discrimination for refusing to preside over a marriage retreat including same-sex couples.

But Squires followed federal law and Army and Southern Baptist Convention chaplaincy protocol when he rescheduled a Feb. 9 Strong Bonds marriage retreat in order to involve a non-SBC chaplain, thereby accommodating the attendance of a lesbian couple, First Liberty Institute said in an April 17 letter to the Army in Squires’ defense.

“Federal law and Army policy both make clear that chaplains must remain faithful to the tenets of their faith,” First Liberty attorney Michael Berry wrote in the letter. “The failure of a chaplain to do so exposes the chaplain to risk of losing their ecclesiastical endorsement, or worse, violates … federal law and policy…. Squires’ actions here are fully protected by federal law and regulation.”

Squires, who follows the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message in protocol established by the North American Mission Board as an SBC-endorsed chaplain, told First Liberty he was shocked when an Army investigator concluded he should face disciplinary action, which is currently pending.

“I hope the Army sees that I was simply following Army regulations and the tenets of my church,” Squires, a decorated major with more than 25 years of military service, said in a First Liberty press release April 17.

NAMB executive director of chaplaincy Doug Carver, a former Army chief of chaplains, defended Squires in a statement to Baptist Press today (April 18).

“The relationship between endorsed military chaplains and their ecclesiastical authority is sacrosanct and protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” Carver emailed BP. “In a technical sense, military chaplains are ‘on loan’ to the Armed Forces from their respective faith groups who, in turn, expect the military to be faithful stewards of our pastors in uniform.”

Squires has “our full support and prayers,” Carver said, “as he remains faithful to his Lord, his tenets of faith, and his commitment to serve all soldiers under his care.”

The lesbian soldier who filed an equal opportunity complaint against Squires attended the event with her wife on the new date, First Liberty told BP, while some heterosexual couples could not amend their schedules to accommodate the change.

Likely, the Army’s investigating officer was not aware of or simply disregarded federal law protecting Squires, Berry, First Liberty’s deputy general counsel & director of military affairs, told BP.

“I think had he been aware or properly trained how to analyze that,” Berry said, “he may have concluded differently. Everything that Chaplain Squires did was clearly not only within the law and within Army regulations, but actually required and protected by federal law and Army regulations.

“So in other words, Chaplain Squires was actually complying with the law,” Berry said.

In his letter, Berry cited Section 533(b) of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) stipulating the armed forces may not “require a chaplain to perform any rite, ritual, or ceremony that is contrary to the conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the chaplain” and protecting chaplains from disciplinary actions in such cases. Berry also cited Department of Defense Instruction 1300.17, which protects Squires by incorporating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Army should “disapprove” the investigator’s findings against Squires, “unsubstantiate” the equal opportunity complaint, and “ensure that any adverse or unfavorable information” relating to the complaint is not included in Squires’ service record, Berry stated in the letter.

Berry said he expects a response from the Army within a week or two.