Fish and Game ‘looking into’ complaint about religious material distributed at hunter safety course in Meredith
Pastor Nason, former FIsh & Game chaplain, described as a ‘good individual’
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL
LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The local pastor who apparently distributed religious pamphlets along with educational material at a hunter safety course is “a very good individual who was immediately upset and apologetic,” according to a Fish and Game official.
Labeling it a personnel matter because the instructor is a part-time employee of the agency, the N.H. Fish and Game Department is “still looking into” the matter and Col. Kevin Jordan said he doesn’t know what the ultimate outcome will be.
Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, had mailed a complaint to Fish and Game on June 28, saying one of those attending the mandatory class for hunters last April was offended to find religious fliers mixed in with the official course material.
“The department did not support the distribution of religious material, and took immediate steps to see that it stops,” Jordan said.
Nicola Whitley, public affairs division chief with Fish and Game, said, “This is the only complaint of this nature we are aware of regarding our hunter education classes.”
She confirmed that the instructor, Pastor Joel Nason of the Heritage Free Will Baptist Church on Meredith Center Road, Laconia, had been employed by the agency’s Law Enforcement Division as a Chaplain between Dec. 12, 2014, and Dec. 21, 2016. The job description says responsibilities include developing and conducting formal religious services for residents or employees, advising and counseling residents in religious matters and making referrals to other departments, coordinating therapy and religious counseling goals, coordinating religious activities and supervising volunteers, and speaking to community groups about care, treatment, and rehabilitation.
Jordan said he asked Nason to step away from the chaplain’s job after becoming division chief because of concerns about the job description.
“The job description was clear, but I thought there were problems with deciding how involved that person would become in the agency,” Jordan said. “I thought it needed more work, and I asked Joel to step away until I had time to decide as a group what we wanted from the position.”
He said Fish and Game has had a chaplain for years, but was always careful to maintain a separation between departmental duties and religion. The chaplain’s job, he said, was to offer counseling during traumatic events such as officer-involved shootings and missing persons.
“Never once have I heard Joel ever push his religion,” Jordan said, recounting an episode in which a Muslim family lost three family members in a drowning in the Merrimack River. Finding them reluctant to speak with him when they were so upset, Nason worked to establish a good rapport and helped them through the tragedy, Jordan said. “He was very successful in his endeavors.”
“It is very effective to have someone like him to counsel people,” he said, noting that it also allows Fish and Game officers to focus their resources where they can help, without having to stop and try to console the families themselves.
“You have to be very careful, I think, in not pushing the religion,” Jordan said. “The chaplains can identify who they are and where their church is, but not hand out anything but material on things such as grief, critical stress levels, and recognizing when you’re in trouble — nothing with a religious base. And they can’t include that in hunter safety.”
He noted, “I’ve been in courses held in churches, and a lot of them have religious info that was out on a shelf, but the instructors never promoted religion or encouraged anyone in any way.”
Asked about the propriety of holding hunter education classes at a church and whether the complaint would lead the agency to avoid holding classes in such spaces in the future, Whitley said, “Some of our education classes take place in churches, as these are important community meeting sites, as well as in town facilities, fish and game clubs, and other locations. This allows us to meet the needs of the communities in which we hold these mandatory classes in every corner of the state.”
In addition to the Heritage Free Will Baptist Church, this year’s schedule of hunter education courses lists the Raymond Baptist Church, with other classes taking place in community buildings and sportsmen’s clubs. The Raymond instructor is not a church official, but Jordan said some instructors are church leaders.
When Jordan learned that Nason had listed his position as Fish and Game chaplain on his church’s website, he asked Nason to take it off, Jordan noted.
Whitley said the hunter education classes are taught from a set curriculum and all instructors are trained and certified.
“They are instructed to use only the official curriculum,” she said. “We have 480 volunteer instructors teaching hunter education, which is required to get a hunting license in New Hampshire. Approximately 5,000 people take these classes every year.”
“He’s a great guy,” Jordan said of Nason, “and I’m sure he didn’t think [distributing the literature] would be a big problem. He looks at everybody in the same way, but there are various personalities that don’t share his views. I’m sure he was very upset about it.”
Nason has not returned repeated attempts to reach him for comment on the incident.