WASHINGTON (BP)–Efforts are ongoing in Washington to guarantee the right of evangelical chaplains in all branches of the military to pray in Jesus’ name in all facets of their work.
The issue initially came to the forefront last October when U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R.-N.C., and 68 other members of Congress urged President George Bush to issue an executive order protecting chaplains’ constitutional rights.
At a news conference in mid-December, Jones and three other congressmen unveiled a supporting petition signed by nearly 160,000 citizens.
A week later, 29 prominent evangelical leaders sent a letter asking that President Bush issue the executive order. Signers included Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Robert E. Reccord, president of the North American Mission Board.
The mid-December news conference led to a Jan. 19 conference call between Jones and White House domestic policy adviser Claude Allen to discuss the issue.
Although no executive order has been forthcoming, an evangelical chaplains group is pushing for a meeting with a high-ranking U.S. senator to further air their concerns over the rights of evangelical chaplains to pray in accordance with their faith.
“This is going to be a major thrust to see if we can get this fixed,” said Billy Baugham, director of the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers, based in Greenville, S.C. Baugham also serves as director of Associated Gospel Churches, a chaplaincy-endorsing agency for independent churches.
Prohibitions against praying in Jesus’ name have been a longstanding complaint lodged by several dozen current and former chaplains in their lawsuits against the Navy. The plaintiffs include 11 Southern Baptists.
Filed in 1999 and 2000, the cases are still working their way through the federal court system.
The Navy disputes the allegations. In a Jan. 10 Washington Post story, spokesman Lt. William Marks said the Navy has no regulation against praying to Jesus and has always encouraged chaplains to pray according to their faith during worship services.
In settings that are essentially secular in nature, though — such as a retirement or memorial ceremony attended by personnel of many faiths — the Navy asks they be inclusive and offer non-sectarian prayers, Marks told the Post.
“If a chaplain can’t do that, he doesn’t have to,” Marks said. “We won’t force him to.”
Guidelines announced by the Air Force Feb. 9 also call for non-sectarian prayers in secular settings.
However, Baugham insists that the Navy has been restricting evangelicals’ prayers for some time. The Air Force, even while developing its new guidelines, and the Army appear to be following suit, he said.
Baugham noted that chaplain Jonathan Sterzbaugh, who is endorsed by the Associated Gospel Churches, called him from Iraq Jan. 30 to report he had been removed from preaching duties at chapel services.
Sterzbaugh also related that he had been ordered not to speak to the news media after responding to a reporter’s inquiry about the issue, Baugham said, adding, “This is a disgrace.”
The Washington Times reported Jan. 23 that Sterzbaugh said he was asked to modify his prayers for a slain sergeant in late December in Iraq.
Sterzbaugh also told the newspaper that in a speech last May at Fort Drum, N.Y., Army Lt. Col. Phillip Wright told the group that if anyone prayed in Jesus’ name, “I will crunch you.”
In an interview with the Times, Wright denied the statement, saying he had never told chaplains they cannot pray in Jesus’ name.
However, Baugham said two other people who were present at the speech verify Sterzbaugh’s claim.
In addition, Baugham cited a recent memo from Maj. Gen David Hicks, chief of chaplains for the Army, in which Hicks said the definition of pluralism “suggests that we fetter our own needs to enhance the needs of others.”
“Therefore it is incumbent upon professional chaplains to understand the needs of the audience before which they pray,” the memo said. “In public ceremonies the needs of the audience may need to be considered over the needs of the chaplain who stands as a representative of the command.”
Baugham underscored the importance of petitions, letters and other support that has been generated in behalf of evangelical chaplains in recent months.
“The issue is, we have to get to a critical mass,” Baugham said. “When critical mass is reached, these things have an awesome impact because it gives a sense of where the majority of people are. Apparently we’re right at that point because a lot of people are listening to us.”
At this point, it is not clear how the issue will be resolved. However, Baugham said Jones agreed that an executive order wouldn’t be necessary if Allen could persuade Bush to direct Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to order the military to relax its stance.
“We’ll be following up with the White House and continuing the dialogue,” said Kathleen Joyce, press spokesperson for Jones. “This is not settled by any means. Rep. Jones has been hearing from military chaplains for three years. That’s why he feels very passionate about this.”
Baugham said the practice of prohibiting prayers in Jesus’ name reflects a new kind of approach to pluralism. In the past there was a mutual respect for various beliefs, but Baugham said current policy emphasizes not offending anyone.
“If your prayer offends someone, you can’t say it,” Baugham said. “The question is: Whose ox is being gored? No one can gore anybody’s ox, but it’s okay to gore the evangelical ox.”
Attorney Art Schulcz, who represents most of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits against the Navy, said an executive order or other directive could have a definite impact on his clients’ cases.
“It would undermine the Navy’s defense,” Schulcz said. “When [the military] says we want you to pray, chaplains can only pray as a representative of their faith group. They can’t be representatives of the government.”
Preventing evangelicals from praying in Jesus’ name violates the U.S. Constitution’s free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment and is viewpoint discrimination, Schulcz said.
One of the former chaplains involved in the lawsuits against the Navy welcomes the attention generated by the congressional action but called the court delays mind-boggling.
“The government is brutalizing us,” said Jim Weibling, pastor of First Baptist Church of Pearland, Texas, just south of Houston. “There are laws being broken all the way through. It just languishes in the courts and nothing is being done.
“I think it’s absolutely unconscionable. Because it takes so long for anything to happen in the courts, the perpetrators are continuing with their behavior. They’ve been doing it for 20 years and the courts keep turning a blind eye.”