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Congress gives chaplains partial religious liberty victory

WASHINGTON (BP)–Supporters of increased religious freedom for military chaplains gained at least a partial victory before Congress went into recess for the November election.

The Senate and House of Representatives agreed on their last night in session on legislation directing the Air Force and Navy to rescind regulations issued early this year in favor of previous guidelines that are considered less restrictive, particularly on evangelical Christian chaplains. The provision was part of a conference committee report on the National Defense Authorization Act that was approved in a 398-23 vote by the House Sept. 29. The Senate followed several hours late with agreement by unanimous consent.

The action settled an impasse between House and Senate members negotiating differences between their two bills regarding the annual authorization for the Department of Defense.

The House’s version of the bill included language some congressmen considered necessary to protect evangelical chaplains who normally follow the New Testament pattern of praying in Jesus’ name. It said every chaplain “shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of [his] own conscience.”

The Senate version of the Defense authorization did not include that language. In the conference committee, Sen. John Warner, R.-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, led opposition to including the House-approved language, instead recommending hearings in the next session.

The conference committee ultimately agreed on calling for two of the military branches, the Air Force and Navy, to drop guidelines published in February and to return to ones issued in 1999 and 2000, respectively.

Promoters of the stronger, House-backed language expressed muted praise for the result.

“While the congressional action to restore the constitutional rights of chaplains was not as complete as we would have wished, it certainly was a step in the right direction,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “If the Navy and Air Force had not been instructed to rescind their guidelines, it would have diminished the First Amendment rights of our military chaplains.

“It certainly would have been preferable to have the stronger House language protecting those rights approved, but we shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good,” Land said. “A step in the right direction is better than a step in the wrong direction. It should always be remembered that in legislative matters you normally eat an apple one bite at a time.”

Rep. Walter Jones, R.-N.C., a prime backer of the House language, said in a written statement, “The repeal of the restrictive Air Force and Navy guidelines is a mark of progress in the effort to restore the First Amendment right of military chaplains -– of all faiths -– to pray as they see fit. While this directive is a step in the right direction, reports that [it] has become increasingly difficult -– in all branches of the military -– for chaplains to pray according to their faith demonstrate that more must be done to guarantee the rights of military chaplains throughout the Armed Forces.”

Billy Baugham, executive director of the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers, told The New York Times, “We’re pleased with it, though we would have preferred the strong language [approved by the House]. It puts us back to where we were. Now chaplains can go back to the business of being chaplains.”

The ERLC’s Land wrote Warner Sept. 22 urging him to support the House language in the final bill.

The National Association of Evangelicals asked Warner and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R.-Calif., the House Armed Services Committee chairman, to exclude the House language from the legislation reported out by the conference committee. NAE President Ted Haggard wrote Warner and Hunter Sept. 19, telling them the provision was “unnecessary and likely counterproductive.”

The Pentagon also opposed the House measure, as did several organizations, including the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty.

The House-backed language said: “Each chaplain shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain’s own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible.”

The provision was an attempt to correct what some House members considered inappropriate military restrictions, especially on evangelical chaplains who normally follow the New Testament pattern of praying in Jesus’ name. Many former and current chaplains have complained about limitations on praying in Jesus’ name in lawsuits against the Navy. Among these chaplains are 11 Southern Baptists.

Some evangelicals considered the Air Force’s February guidelines a move in the right direction after the service branch had proposed more restrictive rules in 2005. The Navy issued guidelines in February that permitted freedom in prayer by chaplains in voluntary services but called for more limits in public ceremonies in which attendance is required.

After the Air Force issued its initial, interim guidelines in August of last year, Jones led 70 representatives and two senators in October to ask President Bush for an executive order protecting the religious freedom of chaplains, including the right to pray in Jesus’ name. Bush, however, has not issued such an order.
Ken Walker contributed to this report.