NEWS STORY: Evangelical Chaplains File Bias Suit Against Navy

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ The U.S. Navy is under fire from members of an evangelical segment of its chaplains corps who claim in a recent lawsuit that they have been discriminated against in favor of liturgical chaplains such as Roman Catholics and Lutherans, and been treated as “second class” citizens within the military service.

Eleven “nonliturgical Christian” Navy chaplains filed the class-action suit March 17 against the Navy alleging a range of discrimination, including “illegal religious quotas” for promotions and career opportunities for chaplains and a “pervasive climate of bias, animosity and deceit toward non-liturgical Christian Navy chaplains.”

The lawsuit is one of three filed since October 1999, escalating complaints by evangelical Christian chaplains into the legal arena. In the past five years, chaplains have sent anonymous and signed memos to top naval officials voicing their concerns.

“The Navy has basically ignored the complaints and the concerns that have been raised by chaplains as to the perception of religious discrimination,” said lawyer Art Schulcz.

Schulcz is representing chaplains in both the class-action suit and a previous suit filed in November by the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, an agency that endorses charismatic chaplains. Both suits were filed in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.

Cmdr. Frank Thorp, spokesman for the Navy’s Personnel Command, declined comment on the particulars of the suit filed in March.

“I can’t speak to the specific lawsuit because I haven’t seen it,” he said. “But I can tell you that the Navy has chaplains from more than 110 different faith groups whose responsibility is to provide spiritual leadership to sailors around the world in fair fashion.”

The March suit estimates the class involved in the suit could represent as many as 600 current and former chaplains, some of whom were passed over for promotions or forced to retire. Among those bringing the most recent suit are chaplains endorsed by the Southern Baptist Convention, Church of the Nazarene, Church of Christ and the National Association of Evangelicals.

The suit cites specific instances where nonliturgical chaplains believe they were harassed for their support of nontraditional worship.

For example, it alleges that Lt. Michael Belt, a California-based plaintiff affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene, was told by a ranking liturgical chaplain that a reformatted Protestant worship service he and another nonliturgical chaplain oversaw was “hogwash.” The suit says the service was reverted back to its traditional liturgical style.

Two of the 11 plaintiffs filed under pseudonymns, fearing retaliation for suing the Navy.

Schulcz, a Washington environmental lawyer, said his clients are not concerned with any one particular faith group, but rather what they view as disparate treatment of different kinds of Christian chaplains.

“We’re not picking on any denomination,” he said. “What we are trying to eliminate is a dual system in the Navy Chaplains Corps. There are liturgicals and there are nonliturgicals and it seems that there are different rules.”

In fact, Schulcz said his clients’ concerns are about unofficial policies that defeat the role of military chaplains.

“There is a spirit where you put aside denominational issues without losing your denomination or faith group for the good and the ministry of the soldier,” he said. “And that’s what is lacking in the Navy.”

The suing chaplains are among those in the corps who frequently use the term “baby baptizers” to describe Roman Catholic and liturgical Protestant chaplains such as Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists. Those that don’t fit into that category include chaplains from charismatic and other evangelical churches.

As an example of their claim of domination by “high church” chaplains in the corps, the suing chaplains said three of the last four and four of the last seven chiefs of chaplains have been Lutheran.

The plaintiffs argue that an “irrational and arbitrary Thirds Policy” has existed in the Navy in which one-third of chaplain positions are reserved for Catholics, one-third for liturgical Protestants and one-third for nonliturgical Christians and non-Christians. Under such a policy, they say, liturgical Protestant chaplains may be given one-third of the positions when Navy personnel of liturgical Protestant faiths represent 9 percent of the military service.

“I’m unaware of any policy like that,” Thorp said.

Citing an Armed Forces Religious Preference Report from 1998, the suit contends that 24 percent of sailors and Marines are Catholic and more than 50 percent of the Navy’s religious population is affiliated with nonliturgical faith groups. The Navy provides chaplains for both the Navy and Marine Corps.

The suing chaplains said the “thirds” policy permits liturgical Protestant chaplains to unfairly maintain liturgical control of the corps and excludes nonliturgical chaplains from influence and representation.

Thorp responded to general concerns about liturgical Christian influence by pointing out that Deputy Chief of Chaplains Barry Black is a nonliturgical Protestant.

The chaplains in the suit filed in March are not seeking any financial compensation, but hope the process by which chaplains are currently promoted will be declared unconstitutional and the Navy will “realign its chaplain corps with the religious demographics of the Navy.”

Schulcz, who retired from the Army in 1986, said he was a member of a “charismatic fellowship that was experiencing some hostility by a chaplain that did not like charismatics.”

The nondenominational charismatic church he attends in Vienna, Va., supports the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, he said. That group represents 6.5 million charismatics and has been endorsing chaplains since 1985.

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The suit by the charismatic group has prompted at least one major denomination to begin an investigation into possible mistreatment of its chaplains.

The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention has said its executives and chaplaincy team do not allege wrongdoing in promotions within the Navy Chaplain Corps.

“However, in response to requests from several Southern Baptist-endorsed Navy chaplains, NAMB is reviewing both statistical and anecdotal information concerning promotion opportunities for Southern Baptist active duty chaplains,” a statement from the mission board reads.

The SBC division’s military chaplaincy specialist said the study will be completed by summer.

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