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Class-action lawsuit against Navy expands to 42 plaintiffs

WASHINGTON (BP)–A class-action lawsuit charging the U.S. Navy with discriminating against evangelical chaplains has expanded to 42 plaintiffs. Two Southern Baptists are part of the newest group to file claims.

A motion to add 13 current or former chaplains to the lawsuit was filed June 25 in U.S. District Court here by Art Schulcz. The Vienna, Va., attorney represents these 42, plus 10 other plaintiffs in three separate cases.

The additions bring the number of Southern Baptists pursuing legal action to 11. Three of the SBC chaplains are still on active duty, although others may ask to return if the class-action suit succeeds.

Both new plaintiffs from the SBC complain they were forced out of the Navy after being passed over for promotions, although they continue to serve in the Naval Reserves.

Lee Becknell of Poolesville, Md., said he involuntarily left the service in 1997 after nine years on active duty. Although he didn’t rise above lieutenant in the Navy, the suit said he earned the rank of lieutenant commander in the reserves.

According to the suit, Becknell was the victim of discrimination based on factors other than his performance, outlining this account:

Because of outstanding performance on active duty, the suit alleges the Navy selected him for post-graduate school, telling him he would be assigned to a training command after completing certain studies. Becknell took additional courses beyond the minimum requirements and earned a master’s degree.

But instead of sending him to a training command to recoup its investment, the Chaplain Corps changed his assignment to Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington, D.C. Superiors also gave him a duty position not related to his post-graduate work, the suit said.

Lacking the specialized skills needed for effective hospital ministry, Becknell said, he completed a one-year course in clinical pastoral education on his own time. As a result, the suit said he was selected for a special hospital emergency response team to assist after disasters.

“On one such disaster deployment, Chaplain Becknell’s…team was sent to Georgia,” the suit said. “Upon his arrival, the local command chaplain who was supposed to assist and support the team, pointed to (him) and said in front of the…team, ‘I don’t want you here.’ This senior chaplain then did everything in his power to undermine the team and Chaplain Becknell’s efforts.”

Later, when Becknell came before a lieutenant commander selection board, that command chaplain was a board member; that board did not select him for promotion despite a record that exceeded many selected, the suit said.

A friend of Becknell’s who observed the board suggested that his record had nothing to do with the decision not to promote him, the suit said.

Robert Hicks of San Antonio, Texas, also alleges he was forced out of the Navy after nine years on active duty despite outstanding service. The latter is shown by his Navy Commendation and Navy Achievement medals, the suit said.

After twice being passed over for lieutenant commander, he left the Navy in 1991. Like Becknell, the suit said Hicks also earned a promotion to lieutenant commander in the reserves.

Last January, Hicks began reading documents related to the class action lawsuit. That gave him an awareness that other chaplains with weaker records earned promotions because of Chaplain Corps’ policies favoring liturgical chaplains, the suit said.

“Prior to this time he had believed the Navy’s propaganda and official policy that its promotion system was fair and faith group was not important,” the suit said. “There was no way for him to know prior to reading the above-cited documents that he had a cause of action.”

The new plaintiffs include two former Navy chaplains endorsed by the American Baptist Convention:

— Floyd Ellison, Chula Vista, Calif., said he was selected for involuntary retirement in 1997 despite a distinguished career in which he advanced to the rank of captain. The suit said the retirement selection board “ignored the records of other chaplains with records that were substantially inferior to his record by using the improper criteria of faith group affiliation rather than religiously neutral criteria such as military performance.”

— Maj. Robert Hatch of Ft. Stewart, Ga., is now an Army chaplain. After completing his first three-year tour of duty, the suit said he was not allowed to continue on active duty despite outstanding performance reports and recommendations he be retained.

Afterwards, he served another three years in the Naval Reserves. Hatch had 10 active duty training assignments, compared to reservists’ average of one per year, the suit said.

Like Hicks, the suit said Hatch became aware of the Chaplain Corps’ biased policies after reading about the class-action lawsuit and documents filed as evidence.

Schulcz, a West Point graduate and Army veteran, told Baptist Press he believes the class-action lawsuit will ultimately succeed because it is based on facts and established, constitutional legal precedents.

“The facts show that the government has preferred some traditions and discriminated against others,” Schulcz said.

“You can see that in the fact that eight percent of Naval (personnel) get 35 percent of the chaplains,” he added, a reference to the percentages of enlistees and chaplains from a liturgical Protestant background.

A spokesman for the Navy’s office of public affairs said the military branch would not comment on pending litigation.

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  • Ken Walker