Lt. Colonel (Chaplain) Ron Leininger’s Testimony at the Travis Bishop court-martial

In celebration of Travis’ soon-to-be release (we expect by the end of the month), I wanted to share this extra special excerpt from the record of trial. This excerpt is the transcript of Chaplain Leininger’s testimony at Travis Bishop’s court-martial.

What is worth noting is towards the end, where in my cross-examination, I got Chaplain Leininger to say that civil law is God’s law, that is was “sad” that people break the law in civil disobedience to injustice and that those who broke the law during the civil rights era for the sake of justice “thought they were doing the right thing.”

LIEUTENANT COLONEL (CHAPLAIN) RON LEININGER, HHB, 69th ADA Brigade, U.S. Army, was called as a witness for the prosecution, was sworn, and testified as follows:


Questions by the trial counsel:

Q. Sir, have you ever met the accused, Sergeant Bishop before?

A. Yes, I have.

Q. What the purpose of that meeting?

A. As part of his conscientious objector packet, per the regulation, he’s required to meet with a unit chaplain, an Army chaplain, for a conscientious objector interview by the chaplain, and that was the only time that I’ve met him.

Q. Sir, what’s the purpose of that interview that you did with him?

A. Per the regulation, it is to do two primary things. It’s to establish his basis of belief, and the sincerity of his beliefs in my professional opinion.

Q. And did you form an opinion during that interview?

A. I did.

Q. Sir, what is your opinion of the sincerity of those beliefs?

A. He is not—-

CDC: Objection, Your Honor. He’s asking him to be a human lie detector, to talk about what Sergeant Bishop told him, which is a section III issue.

MJ: Very well, counsel. Counsel, as I said before, I have notified you that I would allow the government to do this, you opened the door with four witnesses telling the panel that he was sincere in his beliefs. The government has the right to rebut that now, because you have opened the door. Because you have opened that door, and I told you about that, I’m going to allow the question of counsel. Overruled.

You may continue, counsel.

Q. Sir, did you form an opinion about those beliefs?

A. I did.

Q. And what is your professional opinion of his beliefs?

A. It was not a deeply held or sincerely held belief.

Q. Sir, is that what’s required to qualify for conscientious objector status?

A. As far as the chaplain piece of it, yes. It’s for the chaplain to commit to either a belief that the person is sincere in their basis of belief, and their sincerity of it, or not. I did not believe so, and that is how my document that went up to the chain of command as per the reg stated it.

TC: Yes, sir.

Your Honor, no further questions.

MJ: Very well.

Defense, do you have any cross?


Questions by the civilian defense counsel:

Q. Sir, was the interview you did with Sergeant Bishop about 20 minutes long?

A. No, sir.

Q. How long was it?

A. 45 minutes.

Q. Are you sure about that?

A. I’m very sure, because it began late. The Soldier was not able to get there before the 1 o’clock start time that was scheduled by the chain of command.

Q. Is it true that you took several phone calls during it?

A. It is not true, because I turned my blackberry cell phone off at the beginning of the session, and I told the Soldier as such, because that’s his time, not my time.

Q. I just want to make sure it’s clear that you’re under oath. You did not take any phone calls during that session?

TC: Your Honor, objection. Asked and answered.

MJ: Counsel, please be seated.
[The trial counsel did as directed.]

MJ: You may proceed, counsel. Overruled.

Q. You didn’t–so I’ve made it 100 percent clear, you took no phone calls during that interview, is that correct?

A. That’s correct.

Q. I want to–I have a copy of memorandum for records you wrote as part of Sergeant Bishop’s CO claim. I’m going to read from a little bit of it and ask you a question from it. In this—-

TC: Objection, Your Honor. Hearsay.

MJ: Counsel, he’s using it to test the basis of the opinion of the witness that you put on the witness stand. He has the right to do that through cross-examination.

You may continue, counsel. Overruled.

Q. In your letter, you state that you have issues with his sincerity. You argue the timing issue. And then there’s a quote I want to read from you on this, you add, “But this coupled with his admissions, simultaneous contacts with two anti-military groups, one of which is called the Iraq Veterans Against the War, lead me to question the sincerity and depth of his new-found convictions.”

Is that still an accurate reflection of what you believe today?

A. It’s a historical record. It’s irrelevant to my belief.

Q. What is your belief today?

A. What I stated in my record, in my memorandum, that’s part of his packet.

Q. As a chaplain, have you reviewed AR 643, your–what you’re required to know as a chaplain conducting this interview?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Are you aware that AR 643 says that a valid conscientious objector can have valid political beliefs as well as the beliefs of conscience?

A. I’m not familiar to the letter of what the regulation says, so I can only say that if that’s what the regulation says, then that’s valid.

Q. I’m going to jump down now to section B. In your letter, you state, “Sergeant Bishop describes his family heritage as non-practicing Christians. He says that the closest church denomination that best describes his religious heritage is Baptist, akin to our US Army collective Protestant groups and orthodoxy in literacy. Concern of Evangelical roots as described are generally pro-military service, with no pacifist tendencies in doctrine or practice.”

Did you say that in your letter?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Okay. Are you aware that there are conservative Evangelical groups that hold different points of view?

TC: Objection, Your Honor. This is outside the scope of direct, and is a waste of time.

MJ: Counsel, let me say this. You put this witness on the witness stand to rebut the defense case. You have now opened the door to basis of his underlining opinion of why he did or did not have that opinion, and they can probe the basis of it to see if he has the expert opinion or the underlining knowledge to make that opinion. Therefore, he cross him on pretty much anything on that statement. So, if that helps you out in future objections, counsel, you may move on, it’s overruled.

CDC: Thank you, Your Honor.

Q. Are you aware that there are individuals and ministers and even groups of concerned Evangelical churches that have pacifist viewpoints?

A. I’m aware of individuals, but not groups. Not historically speaking from my frame of reference.

Q. You’re not aware of the organization of Baptist Peace Fellowship?

A. No.

Q. You’re not aware of other Baptists that have filed for CO claims?

A. Individual Baptists, yes. But it’s like opinions, in my opinion. Those are opinions from individuals who are associated with a denominational group. My letter is addressing groups.

Q. In–as your understanding of conservative protestant theology with Baptist flavor in this letter, it does–let me ask you this.

A. Yes, sir.

Q. For people of this faith persuasion, is this a faith persuasion that puts emphasis on the conscience of the individual, or is belief highly regimented and dictated by a pastor, by a pope, by other religious leaders?

A. Could you define that–rephrase that question a little more specifically, please?

Q. Okay. Let me ask you a different way. What role does individual conscience have in the faith of a believer who is part of this faith tradition that you’re discussing here?

A. It’s a valid point, but it’s subordinate to the greater good.

Q. What about the concept of the Priesthood of Believers, how do you understand that in this concept–in this context here?

A. The Priesthood of Believers in the theological context, the orientation of Sergeant Bishop? That’s a question. Have you asked him?

Q. Well, I’m asking you.

A. Because that’s a person—-

Q. I’m asking you to—-

A. —-I don’t know.

Q. I’m sorry. I interrupted you.

A. Yes, sir. Because I don’t know his line-by-line theology or practical theology, how he expresses it.

Q. Okay.

A. So I can’t speak to his issue.

Q. So let me make sure I understand you correctly. In this, you’ve described to Bishop using what you believe–one faith tradition believes, but you don’t really know—-

A. As best as he could describe it to me, sir.

Q. Okay. But this–what you say here in section B, is a response to what you perceive Sergeant Bishop’s faith tradition to be, not what he actually—-

A. I asked him. I said, “Let me try to understand this,” and as I mirrored it back to him in my terminology, which is–which was, “You sound as if the closest group that you are similar to would be, what we in our culture are most familiar with, is the collective Protestant service,”—-

Q. Did you—-

A. —-and he agreed, and–sorry.

Q. Oh, go ahead.

A. Sir, and he agreed, yes, that’s correct.

Q. Did you quote him any–about his individual understanding restriction?

A. Yes.

Q. What question did you ask him, if you can give me at least some of that—-

A. What’s your basis of belief? What is your basis of belief, to include the Bible, the scripture which he believes in.

Q. Did his statement of beliefs completely coincide with conservative Evangelical groups, or was it somewhat different?

A. Did it coincide with—-

Q. Okay, did the viewpoints expressed by Sergeant Bishop in the chaplain’s interview, were they identical to conservative Evangelical groups, or were they different?

A. No, they were average.

Q. They were average.

A. Right.

Q. Okay.

A. They were very–highly individualistic.

Q. Okay.

A. Not part of the greater community responsibility that biblical teaching calls people to.

Q. As a chaplain in interviewing a conscientious objector claim, do you understand that you are not called to interpret the other person’s theology as correct in your eyes—-

A. Correct, very non-judgmental. That’s right.

Q. Okay. So, I guess I’m just trying to figure out the–you spend a lot of time in your letter discussing what conservative Evangelicals believe, and not–is that just because–is that because you really just saw that’s what Sergeant Bishop was in his faith, he came from that, could you explain that a little bit?

A. The regulation requires that I explain why I’ve come to the conclusions that I came to. During the session, that was not part of the agenda, to try to convert him, change him, fix him, condemn him, my job was to assess the sincerity of his belief and the nature of his beliefs. And then the regulation requires that document which I forwarded up through the chain of command, as the regulation requires.

Q. I also want to read from 3(c) of your letter. In that, you state, “Sergeant Bush, in the underlined style, has made bare his claim. Aside from recent personal, private, scripture readings, I have seen a lifestyle of behavior that would affirm a legitimate claim for CO status.”

Who is Sergeant Bush?

A. Oh, that’s a typo, sir. Sorry.

Q. Was that from a previous letter that you’ve used?

A. Not at all. I don’t use old letters.

Q. Okay.

A. Everybody gets a fair shake.

Q. Okay, so this–so–have you ever interviewed a CO called–named Bush?

A. No. No, sir. Of course not. That’s a typo, sir. Sorry. I’m a work in progress.

CDC: Sure, I understand.

Nothing further, Your Honor.

MJ: Very well.

Government, do you have any redirect?

TC: One moment, Your Honor.


Questions by the trial counsel:

Q. Sir, isn’t it true that based on your interview with Sergeant Bishop, you concluded that he has no local church affiliation to speak of?

A. I detected none from him.

TC: That’s it, Your Honor. No further questions.

MJ: Defense, anything further?


Questions by the civilian defense counsel:

Q. In your understanding of AR 643 and the other instructions you received as a chaplain to question COs, was affiliation with an individual church, is that a requirement for conscientious objector status?

A. It’s part of the process of establishing the Soldier’s belief system, to ask the question.

Q. Okay, is it possible for an atheist to apply for CO status?

A. Of course, any Soldier can.

CDC: Nothing further, Your Honor.

MJ: Very well.

Panel members, do you have any questions for this witness?

Apparently so.

[Questions from LTC Atkins, LTC Thompson, and MAJ Frawley were marked as AEs XXII, XXIII, and XXIV and XXV, respectively, inspected by both counsel, and handed to the military judge for questioning.]

MJ: Okay, what I’m going to do–Appellate Exhibit XXII, a question from Colonel Atkins–bailiff, could you come back up here?

Court reporter, please hand this back to the bailiff.
[The court reporter did as directed.]

What I want you to do is give it to both parties, government and the defense, and if either party has an objection, state the legal basis for the objection, not just write something down there. I want a legal basis if you have an objection, by rule number, or the specific objection of the law.

[The bailiff, trial counsel, and defense counsel did as directed.]

MJ: Panel members, I’ll wait until I get all of the questions before I start answering–asking them.


MJ: Appellate Exhibit XXII is a question by Colonel Atkins. I’m going to overrule the objection.


Questions by the military judge:

Q. Are you aware of any religion that requires you to disobey noncommissioned officers or miss movement?

A. I’m sorry, sir—-

Q. Let me repeat—-

A. —-forgive me, forgive me.

Q. —-the question, Chaplain. No, it’s okay.

A. Go ahead, sir.

Q. Are you aware of any religion that requires you to disobey noncommissioned officers or miss movement as a part of the religion?

A. No, sir. None.

MJ: Does that answer your question, sir?

MEMBER [LTC ATKINS]: Certainly, sir.

MJ: Appellate Exhibit XXIII is a question by Colonel Thompson.

Q. What made you feel that he was not sincere, meaning Sergeant Bishop?

A. Ultimately, it’s a judgment call, based on the gathering of the facts at hand, and the professional and pastoral opinion of my assessment of it.

Q. Was there anything that stood out that made you come to that conclusion? I guess what’s she’s trying to get at—-

A. Yes. Yes, sir, sure. The–as reflected in my document as part of his packet, the–my appear–my belief that it was a shortly held belief system, and the timing of it with this other trouble that he was involved in, just struck me as quite odd. It doesn’t mean that he had some sincerity and belief in coming in. In my opinion, I had to call it the way I saw it, if this is not a deeply held or sincerely held belief.

Q. You said the shortness of the time period. What do you mean by shortness? Are you saying the short time period prior to the—-

A. Of these beliefs that he held.

Q. Okay, I understand.

A. That’s right.

MJ: Ma’am, does that answer your question?

[LTC Thompson indicated an affirmative response.]

MJ: Very well.

I’ll move on to Appellate Exhibit XXIV, a question from Major Frawley. I’ll overrule the objection and ask the question.

Q. Based on your assessment of Sergeant Bishop’s religious views, would it be consistent for him to make decisions without consideration for others’ well-being or security, if you know? Do you want me to repeat the question, chaplain?

A. Yes, sir. It’s multiple parts.

Q. Based on your assessment–based on your assessment of Sergeant Bishop’s religious views, would it be consistent for him to make decisions without consideration for others’ well-being or security, if you–if you were able to form an opinion?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. And what–tell the panel what your opinion is.

A. I believe that the point in his life, philosophically, this whole idea that he is a–hopes to receive a conscientious objector, that is a filter in which he’s going to see many things, make other decisions that I think will place at risk himself and others. I think they are definitely connected. They are not compartmentalized. They cannot be.

MJ: Very well.

Does that answer your question, Major Frawley?

MEMBER [MAJ FRAWLEY]: Yes, Your Honor. Thank you.

MJ: I have Appellate Exhibit XXV, a question also by Major Frawley.

Q. Is it your job or within the scope of your evaluation of a CO application to consider the validity of political beliefs, or how political beliefs influence or are influenced by religious beliefs?

A. No, sir. That’s not the time and place to–for me to cast–make that determination on the validity of those belief systems. I only care about the Soldier and his perception of it, as it applied to the conscientious objector packet.

MEMBER [MAJ FRAWLEY]: Sir, if I may, an oral question to follow up?

MJ: Please, go ahead. A question by Major Frawley.

MEMBER [MAJ FRAWLEY]: So, as you look at the religious beliefs and how those religious beliefs impact on the conscientious objector status application, you mentioned in your paper that you’re–that he had contact with anti-war groups.

Do you, or should you, within the scope of your duties, look at that for a political prism, or a prism though which–which looks at the political alignment of the groups that he may have contact with, or is it purely separating his religious ideals from the political ideals?

I guess what I’m trying to get at, and that’s a very complex way of saying that, I apologize—-

WIT: Yes.

MEMBER [MAJ FRAWLEY]: —-yeah, I guess what I’m trying to get at is, where is the relevance of him having the contact with the political groups within the inspection of his religious beliefs?

WIT: He volunteered that information to me. I wasn’t probing.


WIT: I was asking him open-ended questions. Tell me what’s going on. That’s what–at that point–juncture is when that information came to my ears.

MJ: Let me follow up on that, Major Frawley.

Q. I think what he might also be getting to is did you use his affiliation or meeting potentially with any anti-war groups to help form the basis of your opinion in this case? Is that what you’re trying to get at?

MEMBER [MAJ FRAWLEY]: Yes, thank you, Your Honor.

MEMBER [MAJ FRAWLEY]: My clarity is somewhat lacking.

A. No, I don’t think so. That’s a–everyone’s entitled to their opinion, okay? We know that’s how America works, even in the Army. I’ll leave it at that.

MJ: Again, that was an oral question by Major Frawley before I asked the question.

Defense, based off of my questions or the questions of the panel members, do you have any follow-up questioning for this witness?

CDC: One moment.

MJ: Sure, take your time.

CDC: We have a few questions.

MJ: Very well. Counsel, let me ask you this. Do you want to admit that document into evidence for the panel or not?

CDC: No, Your Honor.

MJ: Very well.

CDC: Unfortunately, it’s just to hazy to make out.

MJ: Okay.

CDC: I had a really bad scanner.


Questions by the civilian defense counsel:

Q. Sir, have–earlier you were asked if you know of any religion that requires someone to disobey orders, in a certain context. I wanted to ask you, what do you know–are there religions that require people to follow their conscience, no matter what?

A. All the good ones do.

Q. Okay, what do you mean the good ones?

A. Because that’s how God has created us, with a conscience and a free will.

Q. Is it possible that sometimes a conscience–that one’s conscience tells someone to do things that are against the law?

A. Is it possible–rephrase the question.

Q. Is it possible for someone’s conscience to compel them to break the law?

TC: Your Honor, I object. This is outside the scope of what—-

This is very philosophical.
TC: —-the question asked–the question that he was asked before was, is there a religion that requires you to disobey a noncommissioned officer—-

MJ: I understand—-

TC: —-not law or orders at large.

MJ: Counsel, I understand. I’m going to overrule the objection. I’m sure he’s just asking a few questions to get into this, based off of his responses.

You may proceed, counsel.

Q. I’ll restate the question.

A. Okay.

Q. Is–do you know of religions–well, let me back up. Is it possible for someone’s conscience to tell them to do something that’s against the law?

A. Sadly, it does happen, that they–that they follow that, and they break the law.

Q. You said sadly. Why did you say that?

A. Because I want–we all want everyone to do the right thing all the time, to obey the law. God’s law, God’s moral law, ethical law, written, civil law, of course.

Q. Let me ask you this, and I know this will be a little bit philosophical, but I think it’s connected.

A. Okay.

Q. What about the people of faith in the civil rights era that refused to obey the law? Were they following their conscience?

TC: Objection, Your Honor. Relevance?

MJ: Counsel, are you almost–I understand where you’re going, are you almost wrapped up with this?

CDC: Yes, this is my last question.

MJ: Overruled.

Civil rights era, you said?
Q. Yes, in the—-

A. About those who—-

Q. —-civil rights era, people of faith broke the law. Were they following their conscience when they did that, and why was that sad that they did that?

A. To the best of my knowledge, I wasn’t there, but I imagine that’s what they–they believe that’s what they were doing.

CDC: Okay, nothing further, Your Honor.

MJ: Government, do you have anything based off of that?

TC: No, Your Honor.

MJ: Panel members, any further questions based off of those?

[The members indicated a negative response.]

MJ: Very well.

Permanent excusal or temporary excusal, defense, excuse me, government?

TC: Permanent, Your Honor.

MJ: Very well.
[The witness was permanently excused, duly warned, and withdrew from the courtroom.]


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