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Chaplain promotions process continues after federal judge refuses injunction

WASHINGTON (BP)–Navy promotion board hearings for the 2003 fiscal year were poised to begin today, Feb. 4, after an attempt by 25 current and former chaplains to postpone them failed.

However, the attorney for the evangelical chaplains plans to appeal the Feb. 1 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina.

Vienna, Va., attorney Art Schulz filed a request for an injunction in early January, saying the court should postpone the latest round of hearings until it rules on the evangelicals’ constitutional challenge to the Navy’s chaplaincy system.

The plaintiffs in two different lawsuits are alleging the Navy discriminates against evangelicals by reserving better assignments and promotions for Catholics and liturgical Protestants. The evangelical plaintiffs include five Southern Baptists, one of them still on active duty.

While not at issue in the latest injunction request, the plaintiffs also have challenged the Navy’s plan to award bonus points to candidates for promotion who recruit others for the Chaplain Corps.

In its motion opposing the injunction, the U.S. Justice Department argued the plaintiffs are engaging in “litigation maneuvering,” noting that promotion selection boards have met twice in the two years since the litigation commenced.

“By allowing Chaplain Corps promotion selection boards to convene over the two years since the filing of these suits before seeking to enjoin them from continuing, plaintiffs have foregone any claim that they need emergency relief now,” the government said.

However, Schulz has filed a motion for Urbina to reconsider his ruling. If that attempt fails, he said he will file an appeal with a higher court.

Schulz contends that the Justice Department made a material misrepresentation of fact in an earlier brief by claiming that chaplains who sit on a promotion board are like any other Navy officer.

However, chaplains are unique because they serve at the discretion of their endorsing agency, Schulcz noted. Chaplains cannot bear arms, issue orders or serve as a duty officer other than duties related to chapel services, he added.

“When an officer is on duty, he represents the sovereign (government) and a chaplain has no governmental power,” Schulcz continued. “His duties are solely religious and to minister to the needs of seamen.”

Since chaplains are not like other officers, the constitutionality of their appointment as board members needs to first be considered before the 2003 promotion boards make their decisions, Schulcz argued.

The attorney said having a faith group member sit in judgment of another faith group member is a violation of the First Amendment prohibiting the mixing of government and religious functions.

Although the attorney said he has no power to halt the proceedings, if a court later overturns Urbina’s ruling, the latest promotion boards’ actions would be invalidated, Schulcz said.

The Justice Department has a policy against commenting on court rulings.

Urbina’s Feb. 1 ruling was a brief, one-paragraph order. However, the judge said a forthcoming memorandum will set forth the reasons for the ruling.

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  • Ken Walker