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Chaplains’ discrimination suits draw evidence from Navy reports

WASHINGTON (BP)–A conservative Lutheran chaplain successfully challenged Navy decisions to deny him a promotion after being passed over twice by boards that promoted others with inferior records.

Among them was a chaplain who failed to meet body fat standards nine consecutive years, even though 1,300 enlistees are dismissed from the Navy annually for failure to meet these standards.

Such findings come from reports dating back to 1995 that are part of the exhibits in a class-action lawsuit charging the Navy with religious discrimination.

One of four lawsuits filed against the military branch since the fall of 1999, the suit includes five former or current Southern Baptist chaplains, with more expected to join. It names the Stafford Report, Ellis Report and a Center for Naval Analyses report as supporting their allegations.

Among irregularities involving the case of the Lutheran chaplain, Stan Aufderheide, Capt. J.N. Stafford, Navy special assistant for minority affairs, said in a report there appeared to be a denominational quota system for promotions.

“The imposition of a quota system is especially inappropriate if ‘best and fully qualified’ officers are passed over in favor of those who demonstrate substantial shortcomings,” Stafford wrote.

Meanwhile, a study compiled by now-retired Capt. Larry Ellis, a Southern Baptist, found that between 1979-94 just 11.8 percent of key chaplain positions — known as billets — went to those from non-liturgical denominations, such as Southern Baptists, compared to 53.8 percent filled by those from liturgical backgrounds.

Reserve chaplain Jim Weibling, a doctoral student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, believes these numbers aren’t a thing of the past.

“You may see a few more non-liturgicals in these higher billets, but I’m convinced there are still discriminatory practices going on,” Weibling said.

“The Stafford Report was the first time we’ve had a look at the inner workings of the Chaplain Corps,” another reserve chaplain, Furniss Harkness, pastor of Bethany Christian Church in Memphis, Tenn., told Baptist Press. “You’re selected according to your denomination, no matter what they say.”

Attempts to elicit a response from the Navy have been unsuccessful. A spokesperson earlier referred Baptist Press to Justice Department filings seeking dismissal of this case. More recent attempts to solicit comments also have been unsuccessful.

The Stafford Report, released in December 1997, resulted from a complaint by Aufderheide that he was passed over by two promotion boards because of discrimination.

Endorsed by the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, he asked that his record be compared to several promoted from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a separate denomination.

Concluding that Aufderheide’s allegations had merit, Stafford recommended he be given a special promotion board.

While two other government investigative reports disputed many of Stafford’s findings, the Department of Defense upheld Stafford’s recommendation for a special board. Weibling said that the board promoted Aufderheide to commander. Soon after, the Lutheran chaplain retired.

In his conclusions, Stafford found that Aufderheide had performed at or near the “head of the pack” throughout his career. His record compared favorably with the ELCA chaplains and was stronger than most of those selected, Stafford reported.

Stafford also found that the documented performances of two Catholic selectees were markedly inferior.

The promotion of one chaplain who was constantly over weight standards was “especially troubling,” because of the large number of personnel separated from duty for similar failings, Stafford reported.

Stafford’s report said it appeared the promotion board may have systematically applied a denominational quota system, perhaps to assure balanced denominational representation in the corps.

Statistical breakdowns for fiscal 1997-98 show 10 liturgicals were promoted, nine Catholics and nine non-liturgicals. That reflects the plaintiffs’ claim that the Navy maintains quotas for chaplain promotions, generally divided among the three groups. The military has denied any quotas exist.

The alleged favoritism toward liturgicals also was the subject of a January 1995 report by Ellis, now retired and living in Blytheville, Ark.

The former Southern Baptist chaplain conducted a 15-year study, which found that only a small number of key chaplaincies went to evangelicals, though their numbers of enlisted personnel were equal to or greater than liturgicals.

Non-liturgical endorsement agencies were becoming increasingly disenchanted with what they believed was unfair treatment, Ellis warned at the time.

“[This] is only one facet of the disgruntlement of many of your non-liturgical chaplains,” Ellis wrote. “Non-liturgicals are often reminded … that they are not as highly valued as others … without conscientious fairness being voluntarily applied, this [is] a boil that will continue to fester. Eventually, the whole body will feel the sickness, if we do not already.”

While Weibling said the Navy never reacted to the Ellis Report, it sharply disputed the Stafford Report. The Navy inspector general’s (IG) office did a follow-up study, which was issued three months later, denying that any discrimination had occurred.

The Navy study quoted one promotion board member as saying the denomination of the candidates was “hardly mentioned” and not considered in the process.

The Navy IG’s report noted that Admiral Byron Holderby Jr., then deputy chief of chaplains and president of the ’97 board, emphasized to members that only information in a candidate’s record would be considered.

“There’s certainly never been a denominational quota system in our selection process, [although] maybe there is one in our accession process,” Holderby said. “The [fiscal ’97] board was done as fairly as we knew how.

“Half of your people … are not going to be selected, and some very fine records are being left behind; there is no doubt about that. I don’t think that’s due to discrimination; it’s due to honest [board] determination … to pick the best people they know how to pick, in terms of ministry.”

The Navy IG report said the outcome indicates the membership of a board brings a subjective element to the process that can’t be duplicated afterward.

“We believe that this is true for selection boards, in general, and for chaplain boards, in particular, because of the lack of a standard career path and the subjectivity associated with evaluating religious ministry,” the IG report concluded.

However, Weibling pointed out that during the ’97 commanders’ board that Holderby chaired, all four candidates from Holderby’s denomination were selected. The former chaplain also noted that the report said some officers not selected apparently had superior records to others who were promoted.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: NAVY RESERVE CHAPLAIN WEIBLING.

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  • Ken Walker