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Congressmen demand answers on Goose Creek Navy chaplain's reassignment

Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder (Photo Source: Liberty Institute) Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder (Photo Source: Liberty Institute)
GOOSE CREEK, SC (WCSC) -

A group of lawmakers are questioning the reassignment of a Navy chaplain from the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command in Goose Creek amid accusations about his conduct in private counseling sessions.

Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder, a 19-year military veteran, is still performing his duties as a Navy chaplain while temporarily reassigned to the chaplain staff of Joint Base Charleston, according Navy Chaplain Corps spokesperson Christianne Witten.

The letter from Congress seeks information on the nature of the accusations made and investigations and asks "all investigations be conducted in accordance with laws protecting a chaplain's right to express and conduct himself according to his religious beliefs."

The complaints against Modder were detailed in a Feb. 17 detachment recommendation suggesting he exhibited "substandard performance of duty."

Modder has denied the complaints listed in the report and retained the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal organization, as counsel.

Modder's attorneys say the chaplain's religious expression is protected by both federal law and military regulations, and that removing him from his position, the military's promotion list, or any other "adverse action," would violate those laws and regulation.

The detachment request seeks to have Modder permanently reassigned to another unit.

"Chaplain Modder has been temporarily assigned to another unit in the Charleston area as one of the chaplains on staff while the detachment for cause action is considered," Witten said in a statement. "The senior chaplain remains in place at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command to provide religious ministry. The Navy values and protects in policy the rights of its service members, including chaplains, to practice according to the tenets of their faith and respects the rights of each individual to determine their own religious convictions. The Navy also upholds the rights of conscience of chaplains and service members afforded in the FY13 and FY14 National Defense Authorization Acts to express their sincerely held beliefs."

Detachment request details allegations

Complaints listed in the request allege Modder "failed to show tolerance and respect for the rights of individuals to determine their own religious convictions as required by reference." They also allege that "on multiple occasions he discriminated against students who were of different faiths and backgrounds."

Specific complaints accuse Modder of telling a student she was "shaming herself in the eyes of God" for having premarital sex and telling another student homosexuality was wrong.

Another complaint accuses him of telling a student "the penis was meant for the vagina and not for the anus," while making "an inappropriate hand gesture," though the report does not describe the nature of the gesture itself.

Modder is also accused of asking a staff member about her sexual conduct then telling her she should be "in love with God and not her partner," and "berating a pregnant student" for becoming pregnant while not married.

Modder's lead legal counsel in the case, Mike Berry, Liberty Institute's Director of Military Affairs, said Modder himself was shocked by the allegations and firmly denies them.

"Modder was the first to say the report was offensive to him because it is completely inaccurate in terms of how he does his job," Berry said.

Lawmakers' letter to Navy argues religious freedom for chaplains

The letter, signed by 35 congressmen, but none from South Carolina, was dated Thursday and sent to US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Rear Admiral Margaret Kibben, the Navy's Chief of Chaplains.

"As Members of Congress, we are deeply invested in protecting the vital role of chaplains in the United States military," the letter states. "Military chaplains fill a crucial religious need that exists uniquely in the realm of military service -- a need that is imperative to the well-being and operational readiness of the troops."

The letter states Congress passed conscience protections for service members and chaplains in the National Defense Authorization Act to provide protections for "the free exercise of religion and the physical manifestations of beliefs."

It cites specific Department of Defense Instructions issued to make clear expressions of belief are protected and that chaplains may not be required to perform rites, rituals or ceremonies that are contrary to her or her conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs.

"Under these instructions, no servicemember may discriminate or take adverse personnel action on the basis of these actions by a chaplain," the letter states.

The letter states Navy policy also protects a chaplain's ability to preach and teach consistent with the tenets the denomination that endorses the chaplain, "even when Sailors may disagree with the chaplain's remarks."

Quoting Navy policy, the letter adds, "Chaplains have the right to express their religious beliefs during their conduct of a service of worship or religious study. Unless a chaplain's speech is otherwise prohibited, such as publicly maligning senior leaders, their sermons and/or teachings cannot be restricted, even with regard to socially controversial topics."

A second independent letter to Navy Secretary Mabus, sent from Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, himself an Air Force Reserve chaplain, asks several pointed questions, including whether anyone in the chain of command violate the confidentiality of chaplain counseling sessions; and whether Modder received any kind of warning or counseling prior to the "Detachment for Cause" document, and, if not, why not.

Modder, who served as a Marine prior to joining the Navy, holds a doctorate in Military Ministry and had been performing duties at the Goose Creek facility since April, 2014, according to his attorneys.

His endorsing denomination is the Assemblies of God, Berry says, which means Modder is required to adhere to those tenets or risk losing his endorsement, which would mean he would forfeit his status as a chaplain.

Modder does not dispute answering questions "honestly and from a biblical worldview," Berry said.

"On occasion, and only when asked, he expressed his sincerely held religious belief that sexual acts outside of marriage are contrary to biblical teaching; and homosexual conduct is contrary to biblical teaching; and homosexual orientation or temptation, as distinct from conduct, is NOT sin," Berry wrote in a letter of response to the detachment request.

"All Navy chaplains upon commissioning agree to serve in a diverse and pluralistic environment and are expected to treat everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of differences in religious belief," Witten said in a statement.

Congress wants outline, timeline of investigation

The letter to the Navy from Congress also seeks an outline of the process and a timeline for the review and any possible results.

Witten says the review of the detachment recommendation is a "lengthy process" and could not provide an estimate of when the review would be complete.

A reassignment would be "a very indirect career killer" for Modder, Berry said.

"When competing against others for promotion or any prestigious job, a reassignment for cause would obviously raise some red flags," Berry said.

But if the Navy decided to take it a step further, with a Board of Inquiry, that is a definite career killer because it is an involuntary separation from the Navy, he said.

In general, Board of Inquiry recommendations must be reviewed by the chain of command, according to Cmdr. Chris Servello, a spokesperson for the Chief of Naval Personnel.

"If a Board of Inquiry is directed, a hearing is held to determine if separation is appropriate," Servello said in a statement.

In the meantime, while the review is underway, Modder remains a chaplain at Joint Base Charleston.

Witten says no permanent action has been taken thus far.

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