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Lawsuits allege Navy discrimination against Southern Baptist chaplains

WASHINGTON (BP)–A trio of lawsuits pending in federal court in Washington, D.C., plus a fourth in San Diego, allege that the U.S. Navy has engaged in systematic discrimination against evangelical chaplains, including Southern Baptists.

Five current or former chaplains endorsed by the SBC are among 17 plaintiffs in one of the suits, a class action filed a year ago. In all, 27 chaplains are involved in the four suits filed during the past 14 months.

Attorney Art Schulcz, who represents parties in the three suits filed in Washington, said the Navy is violating the First Amendment by failing to guarantee personnel free exercise of religion.

For example, while 12 percent of Navy personnel are members of denominations classified by the Navy as “Protestant Liturgical,” encompassing Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, they hold 35 percent of chaplaincies, Schulcz said.

In supporting documents filed in U.S. District Court, Schulcz included statistics for last year showing one chaplain for every 140 members in the Navy’s “Protestant Liturgical” classification.

But the report lists only one chaplain for every 494 members of the Navy’s “Non-liturgical” classification, encompassing such groups as Southern Baptists, Pentecostals and Church of the Nazarene.

“You’ll see twice as many Baptist Navy personnel as liturgical [personnel], yet they don’t have twice as many chaplains,” said the Vienna, Va., lawyer. “The ultimate victim in all this is the seaman or Marine who doesn’t get the right to express his First Amendment rights.”

The class action lawsuit followed a similar complaint filed by the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, a group that endorses chaplains on behalf of 7.5 million charismatics. Both were consolidated last fall for further court action.

In a motion to dismiss the suits, the U.S. Justice Department replied the suits lack merit. The Justice Department’s brief argued that meeting the faith needs of Navy personnel entails more than simply mirroring the breakdown of faiths within the Navy.

Determining the appropriate composition of faith categories in the Chaplain Corps requires professional judgment by officers involving a number of factors, the Justice Department said in its brief.

As for another complaint by evangelicals, the Justice Department said attempts to promote a general Protestant service on some Navy bases is an effort to maximize limited resources — such as availability of chaplains and worship space — in order to provide for ministry needs.

The Justice Department said the plaintiffs are asking for court action that would set denominational quotas to meet their goal of reflecting the Navy’s religious demographics.

The Justice Department also said some of the claims should be barred by a six-year statute of limitations in Naval codes, while others fail to plead sufficient facts to establish the court’s jurisdiction.

The Southern Baptist chaplains and others in the class action suit, meanwhile, recounted instances when they have been denied promotions, forced to retire early or subjected to retaliation for filing complaints about anti-evangelical bias.

The five with SBC ties are:

— Robert Adair of Columbia, Tenn., who enlisted in 1967, earned a master of divinity degree in 1977 and became a Navy chaplain in 1979.

Despite outstanding service, he said a board selected him for early retirement in 1995. Were it not for the board’s decision, the suit said he would have continued on active duty and retired at a higher pay rate.

Religious discrimination and animosity toward Adair’s faith group were behind the board’s decision, the suit contends.

— Thomas Rush of Clovis, N.M., who served as a line officer from 1977-82, when he left to attend seminary. Commissioned as a Reserve chaplain in 1986, he went on active duty in 1990.

Despite outstanding reviews, the suit said the Navy denied him a promotion in 1993 by disregarding his previous duty reports. The following year he left the Navy. He later became a major in the Air Force Reserves, based on the strength of his Naval reviews, the suit added.

“This treatment … is an example of a systematic policy and pattern of special prejudice against non-liturgical chaplains with prior military service,” the suit said.

“The motivation behind this prejudice is the liturgical hierarchy’s fear that a non-liturgical chaplain’s prior military service gives him a competitive edge against other liturgical chaplains.

“Prior service gives a chaplain a better understanding of how the Navy works. [It] can provide instant rapport with the sailors and Marines, resulting in more effective ministry.”

— Active duty chaplain David Wilder of Hubert, N.C., who was passed over twice for a commander’s position the past two years because of discrimination, the suit contended.

Wilder has experienced blatant prejudice on many occasions, including one instance when a superior told him to conduct a service foreign to his religious tradition, the suit noted.

Wilder led a general Protestant service in Okinawa early in the 1990s that averaged 250 to 275 in weekly attendance. However, an incoming Marine chaplain suggested improving it, basically by converting it to an Episcopal service, according to the suit.

Refusal brought his dismissal as pastor of the service, the suit said; after the other chaplain converted it to into an Episcopal mass, turnouts dwindled to 12.

When Wilder started Baptist worship in the base theater — which quickly outgrew the mass — the other chaplain accused him of sabotage and tried to close the service, the suit said.

— Gregory DeMarco of Clovis, N.M., who was a Navy deep-sea diver for nine years until leaving for seminary. He was later commissioned in the Reserves. Recalled to active duty in 1987, he became a lieutenant commander in 1993.

While on duty in Naples, Italy, in 1997, DeMarco said he was criticized by his command chaplain for ending prayers “in Jesus’ name.” When he insisted on praying in accordance with his beliefs, his superior rated him in a way that made him non-competitive for promotion, the suit said.

The rating ignored his service to the Protestant community, which included the congregation he served growing from 25 to 200, making it the largest Naval worship community in Europe, the suit said.

Seeing he had no chance for promotion, the suit said DeMarco took early retirement to avoid further humiliation and disruption to his family.

— James Weibling of Fort Worth, Texas, who served twice with the Navy, first as a line officer and later as a chaplain. Despite an outstanding career, the Chaplain Corps considered his first tour a liability, the suit said.

Because of religious animosity against non-liturgical chaplains, the Navy twice failed to select Weibling for promotion, the suit said, noting that his attempts to learn why were met with lies and misrepresentations.

Weibling became aware of the prejudice against evangelicals two years ago when recalled to duty in Italy. Without this bias, he would have continued his active duty career, which ended in 1994, the suit said.

Two other Baptist chaplains are part of the class action:

— Ronald Tomlin of Madison Heights, Va., is endorsed by Liberty Baptist Fellowship. He alleged he has been the subject of retaliation for a successful challenge to the way former reservists were considered for promotion.

The suit also said his request for an investigation into another breech of regulations has been ignored.

— Timothy Nall of Little Rock, Ark., endorsed by the Baptist Missionary Association of America, is a chaplain in the Naval Reserves.

While on active duty from 1984-88, attendance at a chapel service he led increased from 40 to 150 over 13 months. However, the suit said he didn’t receive any credit for that in performance reviews.

Nall has served many active duty tours since 1988 and encountered the same prejudice and discrimination on these assignments that forced him to retire, the suit said.

In addition to the individual claims, the unconstitutionality of the Navy’s alleged religious quota system is an integral part of the lawsuit.

Until the mid- to late 1980s, the suit said, the Navy allocated chaplains among various faith groups on objective criteria. The system reflected the relative percentage represented in the total American population, the suit said.

However, because of a large shift away from Protestant/liturgical denominations that began in the 1960s, the suit said the Navy abandoned these criteria.

Instead, the suit contended, the Navy divided allocations into thirds — a third Catholic, a third “Protestant Liturgical” and a third “Non-liturgical” Christians and non-Christians, such as Jews and Muslims.

The suit charges this policy created barriers and allowed liturgicals to maintain control of the chaplain corps while excluding evangelicals. The policy applied to promotions as well, the suit said.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare this and other policies unconstitutional; prohibit the Navy from further discrimination against non-liturgical chaplains; and eliminate religious quotas in promotions.
(BP) graphic and photo to be posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Titles: NO LONGER FEATURED and THE PLAINTIFF’S CASE.

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  • Ken Walker