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Lawmaker calls for hearing on Navy chaplains’ allegations

WASHINGTON (BP)–A longstanding dispute between evangelical chaplains and the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps may soon enter the corridors of Congress.

North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones has asked the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., to schedule a congressional hearing in 2004 about complaints of discrimination leveled at the corps.

The Republican representative, in a letter to Duncan just prior to the Thanksgiving recess, referred to a growing crisis in the Chaplain Corps.

With five lawsuits filed against the Navy, Jones said, it appears that a policy problem exists that should be examined by the committee.

“With our military personnel engaged around the world in the current global war on terror, the prospect that they may be called on to pay the ultimate sacrifice is perhaps more real than ever,” Jones said. “Accordingly, the spiritual health of [them] and their families is just as important as their physical health.”

Because Congress will only meet for one day during December, Jones does not expect any action on his request before January. Committees don’t meet again until February.

In an interview with Baptist Press, Jones said the chaplains’ claims should be aired publicly before Congress, which he said is responsible for overseeing federal agencies.

“Let’s listen to both sides of this issue and then make a determination of whether there needs to be some changes or no changes,” said Jones, who anticipates testimony from high-ranking Navy and Chaplain Corps officials and various chaplains. “I just think some good can come from this. Whether any changes [will] come from this, I don’t know.”

The congressman said he first became aware of the evangelicals’ concerns after meeting with four chaplains a year ago after a town hall meeting in Jacksonville, N.C., near Camp Lejeune.

Jones said he was not sure whether the chaplains he met with initially were plaintiffs in the series of lawsuits pending in federal court.

However, since then Jones said he had met with other constituents who voiced similar complaints, Naval officials and attorney Art Schulcz — who represents most of the 56 plaintiffs involved in the lawsuits. Eleven of the plaintiffs are Southern Baptists; three are still on active duty.

Among the chaplains the congressman met with is David Wilder. A lieutenant commander, Wilder recently filed a complaint for alleged retaliation after he discussed the lawsuits in a Fox News interview last year. Wilder, a Southern Baptist, is stationed at Camp Lejeune, which is located in Jones’ eastern North Carolina district.

Jones said he would like to believe there isn’t any substantiation to the allegations that evangelicals have been denied promotions because of their beliefs. However, the congressman said he had heard so many complaints and reviewed a considerable amount of documented evidence that he feels a hearing is warranted.

Jones said his concerns go beyond the allegations of unfair treatment of evangelicals in the Chaplain Corps. On Sept. 4, the representative introduced the Military Academy First Amendment Protection Act to assure nondenominational prayers can continue being used at all service academies.

Mentioning that cadets at Virginia Military Institute lost that right because of a federal court ruling last April, Jones said he has seen continuing assaults on religious freedom in the United States.

“Whether it be in the military or outside the military, I believe that the freedom of religion is based on the Constitution and the protection is there,” said Jones, a Roman Catholic. “I respect everyone’s right to practice their faith. I respect those that don’t have a faith. But I want to be sure we are all treated equally and fairly.”

A spokesman for the Chaplain Corps declined to comment on Jones’ request. Lt. Jon Spiers of the Navy’s public affairs department said he had no reaction to the letter because his office had not received a copy.

However, Schulcz welcomes the prospect of a hearing. Congress has given the Navy considerable discretion and a monopoly over the exercise of religious rights, so it should insist on accountability, the Vienna, Va., attorney said.

“I think it’s going to help to put pressure on the Navy,” Schulcz said. “The question is, What are they going to do? Hopefully it will put pressure on the leadership to get out of denial mode and address issues that are apparent to anybody who has his eyes open.”

The issue also has drawn the attention of the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, which is publishing a three-part series on the evangelicals’ allegations in its Sunday editions. The last part will appear Dec. 7.

The second installment included comments from a conservative rabbi that anyone who takes their faith seriously finds it more difficult to move up in rank — one of the evangelicals’ primary complaints.

Rabbi Sanford Shudnow, who retired in 1998, told Stars and Stripes his superiors used “spies” to see whether he was asking for kosher meals and wearing the traditional skullcap.

Now a chaplain at a Washington, D.C., hospital, Shudnow also complained that a more liberal Reformed rabbi sat on his promotion board and sabotaged his chance at a promotion.

“It was really misery,” Shudnow told the newspaper. “I feel they really, really torpedoed my career.”

Ironically, Schulcz said the rabbi sought to join a class-action suit against the Navy, but the attorney explained that Shudnow couldn’t qualify because the class consisted of evangelical Christians.

“Shudnow points out it’s really a question of how serious you are in your faith,” Schulcz said. “What you see in the Chaplain Corps is the same struggle you see in the Episcopal Church and some Catholic churches — it’s liberals versus conservatives and the liberals have been in charge.

“I think all people of faith, especially Jewish people, are concerned about free exercise [of religion] problems.”

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  • Ken Walker