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Findings fuel rather than resolve issues in Navy chaplains’ promotions

WASHINGTON (BP)–A U.S. Defense Department report examining a claim of religious discrimination includes an admission that a Catholic chaplain was promoted over an unidentified Baptist chaplain with a superior record because of “the needs of the Navy.”

Navy reserve chaplain Jim Weibling uncovered the incident after filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for release of government documents.

Weibling is one of five Southern Baptist chaplains in a class-action lawsuit charging the Navy with religious discrimination.

The newly revealed information includes a statement by then-Deputy Chief of Chaplains Byron Holderby that the promotion board struggled with its final selection for whom to promote at its fiscal ’97 meeting.

Holderby said the decision between a Catholic priest and a Baptist chaplain was “along the lines of needs of the Navy versus a record that looks awfully good here. Finally after a long time, as I remember, the board voted for — on the needs of the Navy side … .”

Holderby reasoned that if the Catholic priest was promoted, the Baptist chaplain would be selected the next time because of his high ratings, but the Defense Department report notes that this didn’t happen.

Letters from three United States senators in the spring of 1998 prodded the department into conducting an investigation after the Naval inspector general’s office in March had denied the discrimination claim of a conservative Lutheran chaplain, Stan Aufderheide.

After twice being denied a promotion, Aufderheide filed a complaint with the Navy. Though rebuffed initially, the Defense Department found improper comments were permitted at his second promotion board hearing and recommended he be given a special hearing, which resulted in his advancement to commander before he retired.

But Weibling, a doctoral student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said the resulting Defense Department report in March 1999 failed to resolve many disturbing points raised by the investigation. He noted that an officer assigned to clarify promotion board regulations — known as precepts — indicated that using “needs of the Navy” in its selection criteria was not proper.

The plaintiffs have submitted several reports, including the Defense Department findings, as evidence. Thus far, the Navy has declined to respond to the allegations. A spokesperson referred Baptist Press to the U.S. Justice Department briefs seeking dismissal of the lawsuit and three others filed since October 1999.

Promoting inferior candidates hurts everyone, Weibling said, because senior ranking chaplains often fill administrative positions that support the ministries of junior chaplains and lay leaders from various denominations.

“I recently spoke with a rabbi who, in spite of his passion for ministry to sailors, left the Navy feeling discriminated against,” Weibling said.

“I believe that is one reason that Naval guidelines do not authorize such special treatment for promotions — to prevent things like this from happening. To act outside of authorized, written policy like the board apparently did amounts to discrimination.”

As an example, Weibling referred to an investigator’s question about the needs of the Navy when Holderby earlier had said a chaplain’s denomination did not determine promotions.

“We tend to … look at priests the same way we look at minorities and … women,” Holderby responded. “We justify it in terms of who needs what kind of care. When we talk of needs of the Navy, it includes priests. It includes minorities. It includes women and very effective ministers.”

Weibling questioned this, saying these promotions often lead to administrative positions when the need is for more field chaplains who can minister to the troops.

“Our contention is that they routinely bring priests to duty at senior levels — lieutenant commander or commander,” Weibling said. “When that happens, someone who has been serving faithfully as a field chaplain for as long as 10 years or more gets to go home instead of being promoted.

“If no quota system exists, then why are chaplains from select denominations brought to active duty as senior officers and promoted in spite of inferior performance records? It just doesn’t add up.”

Other information Weibling said points to bias within the Chaplain Corps:

— The Navy filed a federal court affidavit claiming that chaplains have never been tracked statistically. But through an FOIA request, co-plaintiff Furniss Harkness obtained a copy of a work sheet from a Naval board that makes recommendations for future active duty assignments. At the bottom, it tallies chaplains’ religious preferences under Catholic, liturgical and non-liturgical.

“They tried to say [our attorney] made this up and that they don’t track these things,” Weibling said. “They have those statistics and use them throughout the Chaplain Corps.”

— The Navy relaxes requirements for certain officers, such as one who was promoted after failing to meet body fat standards nine consecutive times.

The Defense Department’s finding that failure to meet physical standards does not disqualify an eligible officer for promotion overlooks another issue, Weibling said. It is true overweight candidates can be considered, he said, but the person is supposed to be prohibited from assuming the higher rank until that person meets the standards.

“What they failed to explore was when [a candidate] failed the standards nine years in a row, he should not have been able to remain on active duty, much less be promoted to commander,” Weibling said.

“Many other issues besides weight problems made the person’s performance record inferior,” he added. “What kind of example does that set for the sailors?”

— The Defense Department issued a finding of error at Aufderheide’s second promotion board. Despite the Navy’s denial of improprieties, the follow-up report found that a board member made adverse comments about Aufderheide that caused another member to change his vote.

Because this information was based on personal knowledge not in his official record, the Defense Department report concluded that such unfavorable comments were “material error.”

Naval guidelines forbid discussing adverse personal knowledge or opinions of a candidate unless that information is part of official documents.

In a memo to the investigative office, Aufderheide alleged that a member of the ’98 board had a personal bias against him.

When the officer was his supervisor in London from 1986-89, Aufderheide said he had confronted him regarding alleged public abuse of alcohol and womanizing. The officer reportedly replied, “I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you never get promoted … however long it takes.”

According to the Defense Department report, a recorder at the meeting said that former supervisor made adverse statements during the hearing. Comments by a second board member are blacked out in the report released after Weibling’s FOIA request.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JIM WEIBLING.

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  • Ken Walker