A Pentecostal chaplain once assigned to elite Navy SEAL units may be kicked out of the Navy for allegedly scolding sailors for homosexuality and premarital sex.
Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder was given a "detachment for cause" letter on Feb. 17 after his commanders concluded that he is "intolerant" and "unable to function in the diverse and pluralistic environment" of his current assignment at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina.
Modder denies any wrongdoing and is fighting the dismissal with attorneys from the Liberty Institute, which advocates for religious expression in the military and in public institutions. Modder has served more than 19 years and could lose his retirement benefits if the Navy convenes a board of inquiry and officially separate him before he completes 20 years of service.
Navy Capt. Jon Fahs, NNPTC commander, cited several specific incidents in which Modder offered inappropriate counseling to sailors in the command, according to the detachment for cause letter. The letter states that Modder:
- Told a female that she was "shaming herself in the eyes of god" for having premarital sex.
- Told another student that homosexuality was wrong and that "the penis was meant for the vagina and not for the anus."
- Suggested to a student that he, Modder, had the ability to "save" gay people.
- "Berated" a student for becoming pregnant while not married.
Commanders felt that allowing vulnerable sailors to be counseled by Modder is "a recipe for tragedy," according to the letter.
The issue arose after multiple sailors filed equal opportunity complaints about Modder with the command, alleging discrimination.
When confronted with the complaints, Modder told his command that "he will not follow Navy policy if it conflicts with his faith," according to the letter.
Officials decided that "counseling is inappropriate in this case" and that Modder "must be removed from the command."
In 2013, Congress passed a law that no chaplains will be forced to "perform any rite, ritual or ceremony that is contrary to the conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs."
The command said it is impossible to know the extent of Modder's misconduct because conversations between service members and chaplains are typically considered confidential.
Christianne Witten, a spokeswoman for the Navy Chaplain Corps, said Modder has been temporarily reassigned to Naval Support Activity Charleston as one of the staff chaplains while Navy Personnel Command officials review the detachment for cause action.
"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," Witten said.
Modder's 19 years of service includes many glowing fitness reports. He spent several years providing spiritual counsel to Navy SEALS, and in December received a letter of commendation from the head of the Navy Special Warfare Command, who called Modder the "best of the best" and a "talented and inspirational leader."
Modder's Liberty Institute attorney, Michael Berry, said the effort to fire him reflects a broader cultural change in the military.
"I think what we are seeing is a hostility to religious expression in the military now," Berry said. "What we're seeing is this new modern, pluralistic, Navy where service members are encouraged to be hypersensitive, especially about issues of faith, marriage and family."
Commanding officers feel that "if we don't silence this immediately, then somebody is going to complain that my commanding officer didn't do anything about it," Berry said.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.