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5th lawsuit by Navy chaplains adds to discrimination charges

PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–A Southern Baptist chaplain who says he was told he had three strikes against him early in his Navy career is one of 41 current or former chaplains, including 11 Southern Baptists, who have filed a fifth lawsuit against the Navy for discrimination.

Walter Marsh Jr. of Slidell, La., recounted in the lawsuit that a year after he went on active duty in 1984 the liturgical command chaplain at San Diego’s Naval Training Station commented, “I hope you’re not planning on making this a career because you already have three strikes against you. You’re the wrong sex, the wrong color and the wrong religion.”

After moving to Camp Pendleton, Marsh said the liturgical command chaplain threatened never to promote Marsh and made it clear that chaplain promotion boards were a tool to keep non-liturgical chaplains in line. Marsh said he later had to serve a two-year tour away from his family and finally was forced out of the Navy.

Marsh is one of 41 evangelicals involved in the latest class-action lawsuit against the Navy. In addition to the 11 Southern Baptists in the suit, there are five from other Baptist denominations.

Although filed in late April, attorney Arthur Schulcz told Baptist Press that the plaintiffs are awaiting a ruling on a motion by the U.S. Department of Justice to move the case to district court in Washington, D.C. Schulcz opposes the move.

Schulcz, who now represents 68 plaintiffs in five different cases, said the exact numbers injured by Navy chaplaincy policies is unknown, but estimates it involves at least 1,200 people.

Similar to the other suits filed over the past seven years, the latest lawsuit claims the Navy has violated the Constitution in its promotion and retention of chaplains.

Its claims include unconstitutional composition of chaplain selection boards, establishing denominational preferences, illegal quotas for promotions and career opportunities, and creating a religious patronage system within the Chaplain Corps.

The lawsuit also contends that the Navy has created a pervasive climate of bias, animosity and deceit and has violated non-liturgical chaplains’ free speech and religious rights.

The Navy did not respond to a request for a comment concerning the suit.

In addition to Marsh, the other Southern Baptists involved and their stated claims:

— Richard Arnold of Jacksonville, Fla.

A chaplain since 1987, Arnold said his problems began after he reported to a base in Mayport, Fla., in 1994. Once there, the command chaplain’s strange behavior led Arnold and another chaplain to ask their commanding officer for a psychological evaluation of the command chaplain’s fitness for duty. As a result, Arnold said he was banned from the chapel and accused of destroying the officer’s career.

Arnold, according to the lawsuit, believes he was blackballed either in retaliation for his role in the evaluation or because of the ensuing character assassination that followed the evaluation. Later denied a promotion to commander, he unsuccessfully appealed that decision.

— Rick Bradley of Conway, Ark.

After entering active duty in 1997, Bradley encountered problems after a pre-deployment physical uncovered an unknown blood disease. Before he received a medical discharge, however, he went before a promotion board in 2002, which didn’t select him “despite outstanding fitness reports.”

While reviewing his file prior to the board’s meeting, the lawsuit recounts that Bradley discovered his data sheet had been substantially altered. However, before he could resolve the inaccuracies through his command chaplain, he was discharged. Bradley said he previously had been reprimanded for praying in Jesus’ name at a graduation ceremony.

— Robert Hendricks of San Antonio, Texas.

After entering the Navy in 1982, Hendricks said in the lawsuit he was twice denied promotions despite earning Navy commendation and achievement medals. Forced to leave the service in 1991, Hendricks continued to serve in the Naval Reserves. Although promoted to lieutenant commander, the Navy hasn’t selected him for commander.

In 2002, after reading documents related to the other lawsuits filed against the Navy, Hendricks said he realized chaplains with weaker records were promoted because of the favoritism shown to chaplains from liturgical traditions.

— Frank Johnson of Woodbridge, Va.

Johnson reported for active duty in 1985. In addition to two promotions, he said his reputation and record earned him key assignments from the chief of chaplains.

That included serving as recorder of the fiscal 1997 chaplain commander promotion board, which later was investigated for alleged denominational prejudice and misconduct.

Subsequently, despite an outstanding record, Johnson wasn’t selected for a promotion to captain, which he attributes in the lawsuit to retaliation for his testimony during the investigation. He said he retired in 2005 when it became obvious his career had reached a dead end.

— Laurence Jones of Swansboro, N.C.

After earning a promotion to lieutenant commander in 1994, Jones was selected for postgraduate school and received a master’s degree from Duke University in 1998. Despite an outstanding record, including his advanced degree, Jones recounted in the lawsuit that of six Navy chaplains who attended Duke only he and another SBC male weren’t promoted to commander.

“Given his record, there is no explanation for his non-selection other than the culture of bias and prejudice against non-liturgical chaplains and faith groups that permeates the [Chaplain Corps],” the lawsuit contends.

— Samuel Kirk of San Antonio.

Kirk was promoted to lieutenant commander in 1989, seven years after entering the Navy. While stationed on Okinawa from 1987-90, Kirk said chapel attendance increased 50 percent under his leadership, which led to his move to another chapel.

Despite his success, Kirk said in the suit that he didn’t receive a favorable fitness report from the senior command chaplain, a Catholic he said gave superior ratings to other Catholics and downgraded Protestants. He said this treatment resulted in his failure to advance to commander, which forced him to leave active duty after 12 years. Kirk is still in the reserves.

— James Looby of Early, Texas.

A veteran of the Air Force, Looby later completed seminary and entered the Navy in 1984. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in 1991 and commander in 1996, but was not selected as captain by the fiscal 2003 promotion board.

Looby said in the lawsuit that he subsequently learned a rumor had circulated among the Chaplain Corps leadership that he had been injured on active duty, was ineligible for promotion and had performance problems. Because of his record, Looby said the only explanation was the board failed to base its vote on the record but on denominational bias or outside information.

— Manuel Mak of Danville, Ill.

The plaintiff, who served two years in the reserves before going on active duty in 1986, claims he experienced prejudice based on his Spanish heritage and non-liturgical faith. Even though Mak served as the force chaplain in Miramar -– where he supervised six contract chaplains and two specialists -– he was denied a promotion and forced to leave active duty in 1994.

After returning to the reserves in 1995, Mak said he was promoted to lieutenant commander. Mak said after reviewing documents in an earlier lawsuit, he became aware the Chaplain Corps’ policies were why chaplains with weaker records had been promoted.

— James Prince of Cary, N.C.

After a four-year tour in the early 1970s, Prince attended seminary and returned to active duty as a chaplain in 1980. The plaintiff said his superiors consistently rated him as outstanding and placed him in the top 1 percent and “early promote” ratings.

Although promoted to captain in 1993, Prince said he was selected for involuntary retirement in 1997, noting that four of five chaplains forced to retire that year were non-liturgicals. Prince claims his excellent record made him a threat to the liturgical domination of the corps’ leadership.

— Thomas Watson of Ashboro, N.C.

Watson, who entered active duty in 1984, said during his service he twice replaced liturgical chaplains who had left their commands with bad evaluations while he received excellent ones. However, those chaplains were subsequently promoted while he was not.

Watson linked his failure to make lieutenant commander with an incident in Italy that he said led to him being blackballed by the Catholic chaplain network: “Catholic chaplains met regularly and networked among themselves and were given a reserved seat on every chaplain promotion board from 1977 through 2002.”

Watson also said he was improperly discharged because of a medical condition and needed congressional intervention to get reinstated to active duty.

The other Baptist plantiffs include Floyd Ellison of Chula Vista, Calif., and William Hatch Jr., Clermont, Fla., both endorsed by the American Baptist Convention; David Mitchell, Providence, R.I., Progressive Baptist; and Chris Xenaksis, Cortland, N.Y., Conservative Baptist.

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker