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He never dreamed of someday fighting the Navy in court

CLOVIS, N.M. (BP)–Eastern New Mexico University religion professor Greg DeMarco received Christ as his Savior in the parking lot of a biker bar in Omaha, Neb., 31 years ago.

But he didn’t sense God’s call to ministry until a decade later. By then, the former rock-and-roll musician had become a deep-sea diver in the U.S. Navy.

Because he re-enlisted in 1987 in his desire to repay the Navy for the opportunities afforded him during his first tour, he never dreamed of someday fighting the Navy in court

The former chaplain is one of five Southern Baptists who sued the Navy last year for alleged discrimination in promotions and other areas of the Chaplain Corps’ administration. One of four filed since October of 1999, the suit originally had 11 plaintiffs. The number has risen since to 17 — and others may join it.

Officially, the Navy won’t comment on these cases. Requests for interviews with two key officials were denied.

Instead, a spokesperson referred to U.S. Department of Justice briefs seeking dismissal of the suits. Reviewed in previous Baptist Press stories, the briefs contend the plaintiffs have no valid claims and that the Navy should have the latitude to administer its chaplaincy program.

DeMarco alleged the corps was dominated by those from liturgical backgrounds and included inappropriate treatment of junior officers by their superiors. He decided to leave, saying he could combat injustices more effectively from the outside.

“Their idea of pluralism is they can have their services any way they want to, but if an evangelical wants to, forget it,” said DeMarco, who retired in 1998.

The experience made such an impact that he is writing a thesis about it as part of his doctoral studies in ethics.

As for the ethics of suing the Navy, he has no concern about the prohibition (listed in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8) against suing a brother.

The apostle Paul appealed to Caesar for enforcement of the law when he faced injustice, DeMarco said. In addition, he called the suit a challenge to institutional bias, not action against a fellow Christian.

“The thing that scares me to death is the constant erosion of free speech,” said DeMarco, who also is director of the Baptist Student Union on the Portales campus. “It’s always aimed at Christians, whether it’s prayer in schools or prayer in Jesus’ name.

“With the new age of pluralism, folks are too quick to be offended,” he added of objections from superiors to prayers in Christ’s name during public invocations. “For a chaplain to stand and pray, he or she is bringing everything they are to the podium. To not pray according to their conscience is a violation of their rights.”

After sensing the call to preach in 1980, he left the military to attend Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

Following graduation he felt led to rejoin the Navy to utilize his gifts of preaching and teaching. Upon returning to active duty, he earned four commendation medals over the next 11 years.

His love of the Bible, however, landed him in hot water. After advancing one rank to lieutenant commander, he was sent to Naples, Italy, in 1995, where he encountered opposition to his evangelical stance.

He suspects jealousy was one reason for problems he faced after building attendance at a Protestant worship service attendance from 25 to 200. That made it the Navy’s largest in Europe.

His wife started a children’s church that quickly grew from two to 50, along with the area’s first fully graded Sunday school.

“I just opened the Bible and preached and word got out,” he said. “But in the Navy, all Protestants are lumped together and [commanding chaplains] want you to preach vanilla sermons. They don’t want good, sound biblical exegesis.”

Married for nearly 32 years, DeMarco said since many of these difficulties came later in his career, they didn’t negatively impact his three children. Nor did they ruin his enjoyment of 26 years of duty, including six in the Navy Reserves.

And he still loves the Navy, although he looks forward to the possibility of the lawsuits forcing the Chaplain Corps to reform its practices.

“My hope is they will reorganize it and that senior chaplains will no longer judge junior chaplains,” he said. “My biggest hope is [officers] will obey constitutional rules in effect instead of people acting like they’re above the law.”

DeMarco is a member of First Baptist Church of Clovis, N.M., a congregation with ties to two other Southern Baptists in the class action.

Pastor Tom Rush said his motive for joining the suit was to give future evangelical chaplains an opportunity to make a career out of their enlistments.

In the lawsuit, the pastor charged that the Navy denied him a promotion in 1993 by disregarding previous duty reports from his service as a line officer.

He left active duty in 1994 and later became a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves on the strength of those performance reviews, the suit said.

“Your rank doesn’t affect your ministry but it does affect your ability to continue,” said Rush, whose congregation averages 200 in Sunday attendance.

“If you have a good record, you’re supposed to be promoted. But the system has developed where you’re promoted on the basis of your reputation in the Chaplain Corps. It’s a hegemony. If you’re in the system, you get promoted. If you’re not, you don’t.”

Former First Baptist associate pastor Jim Weibling, now starting doctoral studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, hopes the legal challenge will lead to merit-based promotions.

Weibling, who also is pastor of Midway Baptist Church in suburban Fort Worth, sandwiched seminary studies between two tours in the Navy, although he remained a reservist while at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. After resigning as a line officer, he returned to active duty as a chaplain in 1989.

Not only was he passed over twice for promotion, he said senior chaplains lied when he attempted to learn more about those decisions.

He said he had been told that he had not been promoted because budget cutbacks had caused a low rate in overall promotions. After filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act, however, he learned the boards that passed him over had promoted 70 percent of applicants.

His other goal for joining the suit is a desire to see the Chaplain Corps put a priority on sailors and Marines.
“I want chaplains on duty to respond to the needs of the sailors and the community rather than the corps,” Weibling said. “They have an illegal quota system which nobody will admit exists.”

Another glaring problem is the Navy’s support of what amounts to a state church, charged Bob Adair, senior pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church in Columbia, Tenn.

Adair, a retired chaplain, said when he was command chaplain in Norfolk, Va., he had a $100,000 annual budget for the Catholic chapel on base. Yet most of the people attending were retired, and church authorities designated that as local Catholics’ home parish, he said.

This kind of treatment was also reflected in most key appointments going to liturgicals in much greater numbers than reflected by the troops’ religious preference, he said.

Adair hopes the lawsuits will lay the groundwork for a more equitable system.

“Chaplains are an extension of the local church,” he said. “The chaplaincy is a great and wonderful thing. I would encourage anyone to go into chaplaincy. It’s a great ministry.

“It’s tough on your family,” he added. “But there’s nothing like being out there with the troops, sitting there at night on the deck, talking about Jesus with a rough sailor.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at https://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: FROM BROCHURE TO COURTROOM.

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  • Ken Walker