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Chaplains’ discrimination suit expanding to 39 Protestants

WASHINGTON (BP)–A motion to add 12 evangelical chaplains to a class-action lawsuit charging the U.S. Navy with discrimination has been filed in U.S. District Court. The new plaintiffs include a chaplain whose superior told him, “You’re the wrong sex, the wrong color and the wrong religion.”

The June 5 motion said an additional 10 plaintiffs have requested they be allowed to join the case in the near future. That would increase the number of plaintiffs to 39.

Four current or former chaplains endorsed by the Southern Baptist Convention, and a fifth man with SBC ties, are among the new plaintiffs. The two-year-old suit now includes nine Southern Baptists, with two more expected to join.

The latest claims include such allegations as forced early retirement, downgrading evaluation reports and lack of promotions — which the plaintiffs attribute to their biblically based beliefs.

The new SBC plaintiffs still on active duty include:

— Walker Marsh Jr. of Slidell, La., who is stationed at the Naval Construction Training Center in Gulfport, Miss. He alleges that he has been continually passed over for promotion to commander because of the Navy’s hostility towards non-liturgical chaplains and their faith groups.

On active duty for 18 years, Marsh’s complaint alleges after he was assigned to the Naval Training Station in San Diego, the liturgical command chaplain told him, “I hope you’re not planning on making this a career because you already have three strikes against you. You are the wrong sex, the wrong color and the wrong religion.”

Marsh, who is white, told Baptist Press the remark wasn’t made maliciously, since that chaplain was about to retire. Still, he said the remark proved to be prophetic.

For example, after he and two other chaplains started a non-liturgical worship service, attendance grew to 60 despite being restricted to a 7 a.m. starting time. The command chaplain then terminated the service, the suit said.

Marsh said the Chaplain Corps’ prejudice against non-liturgicals is shown by an assignment he received the first time he wasn’t selected for commander. Though promised a supervisory position on a ship, the suit stated that it never materialized and that Marsh subsequently had to spend two years apart from his family.

— Lt. Cmdr. Lawrence Jones of Jacksonville, N.C., a 16-year veteran currently stationed at Camp Lejune.

After a promotion to his current rank in 1994, the suit recounts, Jones was selected for postgraduate school. He completed his master’s degree in ethics at Duke University’s divinity school in 1998. The Duke class included five other chaplains: another Southern Baptist male, two women also endorsed by the SBC, a minority male, and a liturgical chaplain. Of the six, Jones and the other SBC male were not selected for commander in 2000, the suit states.

“Despite an excellent record, as indicated by selection for postgraduate schooling and despite the Secretary of the Navy’s guidance that such advance schooling was to be considered in a positive light, chaplain Jones has twice been non-selected to the grade of Commander,” the suit states.

“Given his record, including selection for postgraduate work, 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 Navy Chaplain Corps.”

The two new Southern Baptist plaintiffs no longer on active duty are James Prince of Cary, N.C., and Samuel Kirk of San Antonio, Texas.

Prince was forced to retire early in 1997 after 17 years as a chaplain, despite consistent ratings as outstanding, the suit states. Superiors placed him in the top one percent and “early promote” rating categories, it notes.

While Prince was promoted to captain in 1993, the Navy selected him for retirement after less than four years at that rank, the suit states.

Prince alleges that before he accepted his last assignment, he asked Deputy Chief and Rear Adm. Barry Black — since promoted to Chief of Chaplains — if he should wait to move his family until that year’s early retirements were announced. Black assured him he had nothing to fear, the suit states, which led to considerable relocation expenses after he was forced to leave the Navy.

“Chaplain Prince was selected for retirement on the basis of his faith group and because his excellent record … made him a threat to the liturgical domination of the Chaplain Corps leadership,” the suit contends. “Many other chaplains with far inferior records were protected and allowed to remain on active duty, in violation of the Navy’s own precepts, the Constitution and [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act].”

Kirk claims his career was terminated after just over 12 years on active duty because of illegal and prejudicial treatment that led to him not being selected for commander. He is now a chaplain in the Naval Reserves.

After going on active duty in 1982, he was selected for postgraduate school, which he completed in 1987, the suit recounts. While stationed in Okinawa from 1987-90, chapel attendance increased 50 percent under Kirk’s leadership, success that led to assignment at another chapel, the suit states.

“Despite his success in increasing chapel attendance through his preaching and leadership, he was not given a favorable fitness report by the senior command chaplain … a Catholic priest who gave superior ratings to Catholics despite poorer performance, and graded down Protestants such as Chaplain Kirk,” the suit states.

“The basis for the differing treatment was purely faith group bias, rather than performance.”

In addition to these Southern Baptists, a new plaintiff endorsed by the Plymouth Brethren is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

George Byrum became a chaplain in 1981 and during his career served two combat tours in Lebanon and Desert Storm while also earning a master’s degree in pastoral counseling. Byrum also earned a Humanitarian Service Medal for his work as command chaplain of the Naval Air Station in Guam for his leadership in relief work after a 1993 typhoon, the suit states.

Despite an outstanding record and two additional graduate degrees, Bryum alleges he was forced to retire in 1996 on the basis of his faith group.

Attempts to obtain comment from Adm. Black and the Navy’s public affairs office were unsuccessful. While the Navy has generally refused comment on the case, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) has vigorously contested the suit.

In a recent brief related to an earlier motion in the case, the department said the claims are without merit and lack factual support.

The brief states that the Chaplain Corps does not discriminate against any denominations or faith groups, nor does it take into account faith groups in making promotion decisions. A chart included in the brief states that as of July 1, 2001, among 854 chaplains that 338 (39.6 percent) were non-liturgical Protestants, compared to 298 (34.9 percent) liturgical Protestants.

“Further, non-liturgicals have the most chaplains in the ranks of captain, commander and [lieutenant] commander,” the DOJ said.

“Data shows that, contrary to being disfavored in accessions, non-liturgicals, in the aggregate, have had the highest number of accessions to any faith group category over the past 12 years — higher than liturgical Protestants and Roman Catholics.”

In addition, the brief states that of 15 top billets in the Navy, non-liturgicals now hold eight, or about 53 percent. The lack of evangelicals in these billets was noted in the Ellis Report, an exhibit filed with the plaintiffs’ suit.

Compiled in the mid-1990s, the Ellis Report showed just 13 percent of the positions then were held by non-liturgicals.

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  • Ken Walker