CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (BP)–The United States Marine Corps is investigating whether Navy superiors retaliated against a Southern Baptist chaplain for appearing on Fox News in August 2002 to discuss a religious discrimination lawsuit.
Lt. Cmdr. David Wilder reportedly met with investigators Nov. 13, nearly two weeks after filing a complaint with the office of the naval inspector general.
Wilder is one of 56 evangelical chaplains who have sued the Navy (which oversees the Marines) for alleged discrimination in the Chaplain Corps.
The evangelicals claim unfair treatment from a system they say is stacked in favor of Catholics and liturgical Protestants. Filed four years ago, the series of lawsuits are slowly winding their way through the federal court system.
Since appearing on Fox last year, Wilder was demoted in duty assignments and recently received a poor rating in a job evaluation.
Wilder’s attorney, Art Schulcz, said there are certain limitations on government employees’ speech, but they don’t yield all First Amendment rights. The attorney charged the Navy with retaliating against his client for making the Chaplain Corps look bad.
“I would say that’s only one of many [stories] that makes the Chaplain Corps look bad, because the Chaplain Corps is bad,” Schulcz said.
“One of the rules of a bureaucracy is you always make the bureaucracy look good and eliminate the critics of the bureaucracy. It appears [they] were trying to find a way to make an example of Wilder, saying, ‘Don’t you dare criticize us.'”
Although Wilder has done past media interviews, including Baptist Press, Schulcz said his client would not speak with reporters until the inspector general’s office completes its probe.
However, the Vienna, Va., attorney labeled the action against Wilder an abuse of power.
“You’re not allowed to retaliate against someone for exercising their rights,” said the Vienna, Va., lawyer. “David has violated no statute and has a constitutional right to challenge the corruption he and others see.”
According to Schulcz, a few days after the Fox interview, the Navy’s then-deputy chief of chaplains, Louis Iasello, called Camp Lejeune’s commanding chaplain in an attempt to get criminal charges brought against Wilder.
While ultimately none were filed, Schulcz said this past June Wilder was demoted to chaplain of the jail — known as the brig. The attorney said that duty represents an entry-level position customarily handled by someone two grades lower in rank.
Because nobody had filled that position, Wilder had been serving at the brig part-time, Schulcz said. That was in addition to his duties as a training and operations officer for Camp Lejeune, where more than 43,000 sailors and marines are stationed.
The brig contrasts significantly with training and operations, according to Schulcz. The latter involves acting as an assistant to the senior chaplain by coordinating programs, handling long-range planning and overseeing budgetary matters, the attorney said.
Although his client initially kept silent after being placed on duty at the brig fulltime, Schulcz said he advised Wilder to file a discrimination complaint with the inspector general about receiving a poor performance review in October.
Known as a fitness report, the review downgraded Wilder’s grade for “military bearing” without listing any reason, Schulcz said. If allowed to stand, the attorney said the report would damage Wilder’s chances for a future promotion.
Since the alleged attempt to bring charges against Wilder, Rear Admiral Iasello has been promoted to chief of chaplains. Iasello replaced Barry Black, who was named chaplain of the U.S. Senate last July.
Lt. Jon Spiers of the Navy’s public affairs office, who speaks for the chief of chaplains, said the military branch has a policy against commenting on an ongoing investigation.
A spokesman at Camp Lejeune said the investigation was being handled at Marine headquarters in Washington, D.C.
But an inquiry with the Marines’ public affairs office referred Baptist Press back to Spiers, who said he didn’t have any further information on the anticipated length or extent of the investigation.
Wilder is one of 11 Southern Baptists who are plaintiffs in the lawsuits. He was among the original 11 current or former chaplains in a class-action lawsuit that has since expanded to 42 individuals.
In the suit, Wilder alleged being twice passed over for the rank of commander despite an outstanding record.
A 1980 graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wilder said in an earlier interview with Baptist Press that rewards generally go to those who “play along” to earn promotions.
“If you want to pray in Jesus’ name, you’re not going to go very far,” Wilder said. “If I have an altar call at the end of a service and invite people to come forward and accept Christ, that’s the kiss of death as far as advancement in the Chaplain Corps. If we preach that people have to accept Christ, they have a problem with that.”
Wilder reiterated those views on Fox News, objecting to orders from superior officers to include liturgical elements in his services.
“The idea is if we have a service like this, it will meet the needs of everybody,” Wilder told Fox News reporter Brit Hume. “But in fact, what it does is, it leaves out almost everybody.”
Schulcz said the commander who lowered Wilder’s duty assignment was a Catholic priest whom he named in a request for an injunction last June. The injunction is still pending.
That legal filing claimed 23 Catholic priests had been retained as Naval Reserve chaplains despite passing the customary retirement age of 60. Schulcz said the priest in question was a temporary commander and has since been replaced.
The attorney said the treatment Wilder has received is similar to the pattern being alleged in the lawsuits.
“The First Amendment not only includes the right of free speech, but the right to seek redress for violations of the Constitution,” Schulcz added. “We describe this as litigant control. If you punish a litigant, you send a warning to all other litigants that they better watch out or their careers will be in jeopardy.”
According to Schulcz, the court cases against the Navy are stalled because the Navy filed an appeal of a recent ruling by a federal judge that is favorable to the plaintiffs’ case.
In early September, Judge Ricardo Urbina granted a motion to compel past promotion board members to answer questions about their deliberations. Schulcz said he couldn’t proceed with discovery of further evidence until that appeal is resolved.