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Chaplaincy suit seeks to halt anti-evangelical bias in Navy

WASHINGTON (BP)–While there is no timetable for federal court action on a series of lawsuits pending against the U.S. Navy, the plaintiffs hope to end soon what they see as an anti-evangelical bias in this branch of the military.

A class action lawsuit filed last year by 17 former or current chaplains charges that commanders have fostered a “high church” monopoly in the chief of chaplains position.

The current chief of chaplains, Admiral Barry Black, is the first African American and first Seventh-day Adventist to hold the position. Three of the past four chiefs, however, have been Lutheran, the suit said. Over the past three decades others to hold the office have been Methodist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and one from the Reformed Christian Church.

The only Southern Baptist to hold office since 1917 served from 1965-70.

An affidavit by Retired Capt. (and SBC church member) Larry Ellis cites other evidence of bias against chaplains classified by the Navy as “Non-liturgical” (such as Baptists, Pentecostals and Church of the Nazarene).

A report Ellis compiled for the years 1979-94 while he was on active duty showed that of 119 individuals who occupied key Chaplain Corps positions, only 14, or 11.8 percent, were non-liturgical.

The Blytheville, Ark., resident said it was obvious to anyone who examined denominational trends that if the Navy continued using appropriate criteria, the corps would have to retain larger percentages of non-liturgical chaplains.

The overall makeup of the Chaplain Corps and its leadership also would change over time, shifting from a “Protestant Liturgical” (such as Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Presbyterian) to a non-liturgical majority, Ellis said. However, the lawsuit claimed, the opposite has occurred.

The lawsuit also said the Navy discriminates in chaplain retention policies as well. Despite codes requiring that an officer twice passed over for promotion be separated from the Navy, the suit alleged that chaplains from “favored” denominations have been retained.

“For example, many Catholic chaplains who have been twice passed over have been routinely provided with additional third, fourth and fifth opportunities for promotion,” the suit said. “Chaplains of non-liturgical Christian faith groups or denominations have routinely been separated after their two promotion pass overs.”

A former chaplain who said he was forced to resign under threat of a court martial became the latest to contest this alleged pattern of discrimination when he filed suit in mid-December.

Philip Veitch, who was ordained by the theologically conservative Reformed Episcopal Church, is asking a judge to reinstate him to active duty. He also wants the court to expunge records he said resulted from the Navy’s religious bias and retaliation.

Although he left the Navy while in North Carolina, his suit said problems cropped up while he was on assignment in Naples, Italy.

“Phil’s problem is he was an evangelical, and leaders in Naples were looking for a liberal liturgical,” said attorney Arthur Schulcz, lead counsel in the case. “He stood up for righteousness and got smashed.

“This is part of a bigger picture of hostility against evangelicals in the Navy. People are told they can’t use the name of Jesus.”

An exhibit attached to the lawsuit appears to verify that claim. A Naval performance review that criticized Veitch for being detrimental to the command mission said he “was removed from [the] pulpit for failure to preach pluralism among religions.”

Veitch’s lawsuit cited examples of anti-evangelical bias by his commanding chaplain, a Catholic. Among them were:

— Ordering Sunday school material that was offensive to most of the Protestant community.

— Combining Protestant and Catholic Vacation Bible Schools, which precluded the teaching of classic Protestant doctrines and perspectives.

— Attempting to cancel the contract of an evangelical-oriented youth ministry amid allegations that the youth ministry was not “inclusive enough.”

— Ripping a poster announcing a “Reformation Conference” off Veitch’s office door.

As a result of such activities and bias, Veitch said he filed an equal-opportunity complaint with the Naples command.

An investigator examined sermons that offended his Catholic superior. But without comparing them with historical Protestant teaching or consulting other evangelical chaplains, the suit said the investigator found he was preaching “non-inclusiveness” and “non-pluralism” as alleged.

However, in a brief opposing the plaintiff’s claims, the U.S. Department of Justice quoted from a Naval review that said Veitch was unwilling to adapt to Naples’ military lifestyle.

The report also claimed Veitch created friction within the chaplain’s office and was unable to assume leadership when necessary.

Five months before resigning, Veitch gave a sermon that he later acknowledged could be construed as “anti-priest,” wrote Justice Department attorney Youngjae Lee.

This led to a discussion between Veitch and the commanding officer of U.S. Naval Support Activity in Naples. Following that, according to the Justice Department, the plaintiff sent a number of e-mail messages to his immediate superior, some intemperate and disrespectful in tone.

Later, the commanding officer reviewed the messages and determined that the plaintiff’s disrespect and absences from appointed places of duty were serious enough to warrant court martial, the Justice Department said.

However, the commander decided to use a form of non-judicial punishment, the Justice Department said. Its brief stated that Veitch insisted on proceeding to a court martial, then to avoid the hearing, he resigned.

To bolster Veitch’s case, meanwhile, his attorney has submitted a series of declarations and affidavits from current or former personnel in Naples that describe a pattern of anti-evangelical hostility.

One of them, Army Maj. Charles Edge, thinks the only thing the former chaplain is guilty of is refusing to be spiritually or professionally intimidated by those who tried to marginalize the power of God’s Word.

Even though Veitch’s wife played piano for the Catholic service on Sundays, he was constantly accused of being non-pluralistic, said Edge, who attended the service where Veitch preached.

“The application of pluralism seemed rather one-dimensional,” he wrote. “The real net effect was to obviously and blatantly pressure Protestant junior chaplains (primarily evangelistic Protestants) to tone down or generalize their manner of worship in deference to the senior Catholic chaplain.

“To those I discuss the issue with, the notion of pluralism as practiced locally within the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps is little more than political correctness,” Edge commented. “[It is] designed to weaken the effectiveness of Protestant worship and pastoral initiatives.”

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker