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Chaplains hope SBC resolution will help bring change in Navy

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Passage of a Southern Baptist Convention resolution renouncing discrimination against Southern Baptist and other evangelical military chaplains hopefully will help provide the impetus for change, two former Navy chaplains said June 13.

Messengers to the 2001 convention approved without any observable opposition a resolution urging the U.S. Navy specifically “to rectify past documented injustices” and to implement policies “to insure free religious practice for all military personnel.”

Six current or former chaplains with Southern Baptist connections are participants in lawsuits against the Navy. They are among 28 plaintiffs in five suits alleging the Navy has denied evangelical chaplains promotions and discharged them early, as a result restricting their free exercise of religion. The chaplains have charged the Navy with unconstitutionally discriminating against them because of their beliefs and practices.

“We hope [this resolution] will help make some institutional changes” and “get the Chaplains Corps back in line,” said Greg DeMarco, a retired Navy chaplain, after the resolution’s approval.

DeMarco and Tom Rush, both Southern Baptists, attended the convention and drafted the original resolution. Both are parties in the legal action.

DeMarco is a religion professor and Baptist Student Union director at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, N.M. Rush is pastor of First Baptist Church in Clovis, N.M. A former Navy chaplain, Rush now serves as a reserve chaplain in the Air Force.

Some chaplains have undergone “terrible persecution,” DeMarco said.

The Navy’s policies result in chaplains being “social workers and junior psychologists instead of men of God,” Rush said.

The “real tragedy” is that it is “the marine, the sailor and his wife and children who are ultimately hurt” because the gospel of Jesus is not proclaimed, DeMarco said.

A recent Baptist Press article traced complaints about Chaplains Corps favoritism of chaplains with liturgical practices to the 1840s. An official Navy history demonstrated 40 percent of chaplains appointments went to Episcopalians during a 41-year period. The study contradicted testimony from a secretary of the Navy that it was only 15 percent.

Danny Akin, the Resolutions Committee chairman, said the SBC resolution was not seeking favoritism for Southern Baptists but a policy that is “balanced, fair and treats all chaplaincy personnel equally.”

In addition to DeMarco and Rush, other former chaplains with Southern Baptist ties involved in lawsuits against the Navy are Bob Adair, senior pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church in Columbia, Tenn.; Jim Weibling, a doctoral student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Ron Wilkins, who attends a Southern Baptist church in Oklahoma City.

David Wilder is the only active Southern Baptist chaplain involved in a suit. He is stationed at a Marine Corps base in Havelock, N.C., and will soon move to Camp LeJune in Jacksonville, N.C.

Both DeMarco and Rush expressed gratitude to the North American Mission Board and NAMB President Bob Reccord for supporting the resolution.
Ken Walker contributed to this article.