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Fort Bragg chaplain facing reprimand in discrimination probe involving same-sex couple

Fort Bragg (Fort Bragg/Released)

A Fort Bragg chaplain is facing potential disciplinary action following an investigation into whether or not he discriminated against a same-sex couple seeking to attend a marriage retreat.

The investigation into Maj. J. Scott Squires has opened a larger debate over how the Army’s Equal Opportunity policy squares with restrictions placed on chaplains by their endorsing religious organization.

In this case, Squires faces a potentially career-hobbling reprimand after an investigating officer found that he discriminated against an unnamed sergeant who sought to attend a Strong Bonds marriage retreat sponsored by the 1st Special Warfare Training Group.

Squires, who is endorsed by the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, met with the sergeant and informed her that his religious denomination did not recognize same sex unions and, since he was the person facilitating the retreat, the sergeant and her wife would not be able to participate.

Lawyers with the First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedoms, are now representing Squires. They said the chaplain did nothing wrong and should not be punished.

“Chaplain Squires should not have his career ruined for following the rules of both his faith and the Army,” said Mike Berry, First Liberty’s deputy general counsel and director of military affairs. “Federal law protects Chaplain Squires and prohibits the military from punishing any chaplain who acts in accordance with their religious tenets.”

At least two other Fort Bragg chaplains, including the senior chaplains for U.S. Army Special Operations Command and the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, have offered their support for Squires.

But Matt Thorn, president and CEO of OutServe-SLDN, a nonprofit legal services organization that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service members, said the arguments being made on behalf of Squires are disconcerting.

“It’s a very thin line for the chaplaincy to walk,” he said.

Thorn said he was unaware of any past case in which a same-sex couple was not allowed to attend a command sponsored marriage retreat.

A 15-6 investigation into the alleged discrimination has already taken place, with an investigating officer finding that there is evidence that Squires and an unnamed chaplain’s assistance discriminated against the sergeant.

The investigating officer recommended that officials reprimand both the chaplain and chaplain’s assistant. But no final decision has been made in the case.

“This is an ongoing investigation,” said Maj. Gen. Kurt Sonntag, the commanding general of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. “We take every discrimination claim seriously and afford all members of our community the right to equality. The command embraces the diversity of each individual in our organization and welcomes the responsibility to create an inclusive workplace.”

In a statement released through First Liberty, Squires said he was shocked to learn that he could be reprimanded for his actions.

“I hope the Army sees that I was simply following Army regulations and the tenets of my church,” he said.

Squires is a 25-year veteran of the Army who previously served as an enlisted soldier.

According to the 15-6 investigation, the unnamed sergeant filed an equal opportunity complaint on Feb. 6, after learning that she and her wife would be unable to attend the Strong Bonds retreat originally scheduled for Feb. 9-11.

The sergeant had reached out to the chaplain’s assistant a week earlier, inquiring about registering for the retreat.

At the time, only two or three couples had registered for the three-day event, which had a capacity of 10 couples.

But instead of allowing the sergeant to register her and her spouse, the chaplain’s assistant directed the soldier to Squires.

On Feb. 1, Squires met with the sergeant and explained that since he was the facilitator, she would be unable to participate. He informed her that some chaplains within the command do recognize same sex marriages and that she would be notified of the next retreat but did not offer any specifics.

The sergeant then reached out to her command, but by that time all of the retreat positions were filled.

Following the equal opportunity complaint, the investigator found that Squires attempted to find another chaplain to facilitate the retreat. But to do so, officials had to reschedule the event to later in the month.

The investigating officer found that Squires and the chaplain’s assistant violated Army policy that protects soldiers from being denied services based on race, color, national origin, gender, religious affiliation or sexual orientation. The officer said there was reason evidence the sergeant was treated differently due to her being in a same-sex marriage.

But the investigation also revealed mitigating factors, including an apparent conflict between chaplain corps policy and equal opportunity policies.

Squires’s endorsing organization, North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, bars its chaplains from conducting, attending, blessing or performing counseling in support of any same-sex marriage.

In a letter, the North American Mission Board said they believed any punishment of Squires would violate federal law and military policy and said the board was prepared to consider any action, including legal action, to ensure Squires does not face any adverse action.

But the investigating officer said the restrictions placed on Squires do not supersede the sergeant’s right to attend the command-sponsored event.

Chaplain corps policy calls for chaplains to either “perform” or “provide” – meaning if a chaplain is unable to participate in an event because of their religious believes, they should find another chaplain who is able to participate.

But the investigating officer found that policy is unclear and provides little guidance to chaplains.

And he said the equal opportunity policy further exacerbates the issue.

“The two policies together place the command in a position in which to meet one’s rights you would have to infringe upon another’s rights,” the investigating officer found.

As part of his recommendations, the investigating officer stated that the Special Warfare Center and School should ensure chaplains and equal opportunity representatives understand how to handle future conflicts involving the policies.

In letters of support, the command chaplains for SWCS and USASOC defended Squires and blasted the investigation into his actions.

“Chaplain Squires is a highly motivated leader who models selfless service,” said Lt. Col. Richard Winchester, the SWCS chaplain. “He strives to live by the golden rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ providing quality care to those under his charge regardless of background.”

Winchester asked the commander overseeing the investigation to reject the findings of the 15-6.

Col. Keith N. Croom, the senior chaplain for USASOC and the highest-ranking Southern Baptist chaplain on Fort Bragg, had stronger words and said Squires was the victim in the investigation.

“I have never personally witnessed a more definitive injustice towards any chaplain than this present situation with Chaplain Squires,” he said.

Croom, who has known Squires since 1994, said the chaplain is one of the most tolerant individuals he knows and “understands the pluralistic setting Army chaplains are required to work within.”

“Religious accommodation and religious liberty applies to ALL individuals including chaplains,” Croom said. “This investigation has been biased against the chaplain from the beginning.”

He added that Squires had not discriminated against the sergeant and her wife, but instead catered to the couple at the expense of others by rescheduling the event for later in the month.

“This situation is not an example of discrimination,” Croom said. “It is an example of a same sex couple, the equal opportunity representative and the investigating officer not understanding the position of the chaplain regarding their own religious accommodation, religious liberty and the chaplain endorsing agencies.”

Berry, of First Liberty, agreed.

“I’m left scratching my head,” he said.

He said the Army risks ending the career of a promising officer.

“We urge the Army to follow the law, just as Chaplain Squires did,” he said. “Chaplains should not have to give up their First Amendment rights in order to serve.”

But Thorn, of OutServe-SLDN, said the case highlights the need for the military to ensure equality and fairness is applied across the force.

“You are there to serve our service members,” he said. “That’s your first and foremost priority.”

Thorn said chaplains can make the argument that they cannot perform a same-sex wedding but denying a soldier from a retreat open to other service members was something entirely different.

“The military is going to have to address this,” he said. “This will probably not be the last incident.”


© 2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

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