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Ex-Navy chaplain’s appeal poses basic constitutional questions

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–An Oklahoma City man with Southern Baptist ties has appealed the dismissal of his 1999 lawsuit charging the Navy with religious discrimination.

If reinstated, Ron Wilkins’ suit would be the fifth by evangelicals claiming the Navy favors Catholics and liturgical denominations at the expense of evangelicals’ promotions and retention. The filings began in October 1999.

“I think [the lawsuit] will be reinstated,” said Wilkins, who attends a Southern Baptist church but was endorsed as a chaplain by an independent Baptist group. “The government is asking the court to go against its own precedents,” he said of his suit alleging violations of his First and Fifth Amendment rights.

“The law never requires an individual to pursue a futile course of action,” Wilkins recounted, “but I was told to go to a Naval board of corrections, and they don’t rule on constitutional issues.” The former chaplain claims he was involuntarily selected for early retirement in 1995 after 26 years of active duty, 18 as a chaplain.

The lawsuit asked that the retirement be set aside, that Wilkins be reinstated to active duty and that he be awarded back pay.

At issue is whether the monetary damages he sought should bar the suit because of previous federal court rulings limiting such claims against the government.

When the case was dismissed in the Southern District of California, where he previously lived, Judge Irma Gonzalez cited several grounds in granting the government’s motion.

She said his case should be heard by the Court of Federal Claims, that his allegations were insufficient to establish federal court jurisdiction and that he had failed to exhaust administrative remedies.

However, Vienna, Va., attorney Art Schulcz, who represents 26 plaintiffs in three other suits, believes the judge relied on the wrong judicial precedents.

“Under the District Court’s rationale and decision, no service person could bring a claim for any constitutional violation,” he said in his brief appealing the dismissal.

“This establishes the strange dichotomy that judicial power can be used to make the Navy follow its own regulations and policies … but can’t be used to order the Navy to obey the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause restrictions the First Amendment imposes on all other government operations,” Schulcz wrote.

In addition, Schulcz said his client’s claims represent the kind that would be futile to submit to Navy boards. They involve challenges to policies that have approval of the Secretary of the Navy, he said.

Even if reinstated to active duty, Wilkins would be subject to the same unconstitutional conduct that led to his involuntary retirement, the attorney said.

This is the second time Wilkins has sued the Navy. On the eve of a planned dismissal in 1986, he filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the practice of including two Catholics on every promotion board.

He said he dropped the lawsuit in return for advancement in rank to lieutenant commander and the Navy quitting its use of two Catholics on every promotion board.

“I didn’t have the money to pursue a federal lawsuit, so I agreed,” Wilkins said. “I didn’t have the power to force further reform. Fortunately, the Navy legal department brought in quite a bit of reform.”

Naval officials have consistently declined requests for comment on the lawsuits, referring Baptist Press to U.S. Department of Justice legal filings.

But in a 1998 interview with the Baltimore Sun, Rear Admiral Barry Black — since promoted to Chief of Chaplains — denied claims of discrimination. They were aired during Senate confirmation hearings for the prior chief.

“I can speak from personal experience,” said Black, a Seventh-Day Adventist. “In my 22 years I haven’t been discriminated against. I’m as non-liturgical as you can get.”

He also disputed the contention that statistics showing more liturgicals and Catholics fill top positions are any indication of bias.

“Why couldn’t it be that the best people happen to come from these [other] religious denominations?” he told the Sun. “You try to put the best qualified in a limited number of key positions.”

However, Wilkins replied that the Navy chaplaincy is a historic monopoly by Catholics and liturgical denominations. Not only do they control the religious composition, but how services are conducted, he said.

Baptists cannot have services on a par with these groups and do not have the opportunity for consistent, evangelical Christian education, he added.

“Catholics always have a well-publicized mass,” he commented. “We get a general Protestant service and a Sunday school with ecumenical literature. The Navy rarely hires a Baptist minister to conduct services. We cannot preach the gospel freely.”

At the age of 59, Wilkins said he doesn’t expect to gain reinstatement to active duty. But he said he hopes the military will reform its current system and allow for equitable free exercise so Baptists can have appropriate services.

While some have interpreted the lawsuits as having an anti-Catholic bias, the Oklahoma City resident said he doesn’t begrudge taking care of Catholic service men and women’s religious needs.

Besides meeting the needs of their own faith group, chaplains are supposed to accommodate those of other backgrounds, he said.

“I want evangelical ministers to be on a par with Catholics,” said Wilkins. “I don’t want the Constitution done away with, I want it implemented. I hope the Navy will take away this monopolizing of the chaplaincy.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: RON WILKINS.

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  • Ken Walker