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Suit by former Navy chaplain gains judge’s go-ahead ruling

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a former Naval chaplain who claims religious discrimination led to his discharge from the Chaplain Corps.

D. Philip Veitch sued the Navy last December, joining a list of 28 plaintiffs who have lodged five separate suits against the military. All allege the Navy has systematically discriminated against evangelical chaplains in favor of Catholics and those from liturgical backgrounds.

On Aug. 30, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia turned down the Navy’s motion to dismiss Veitch’s suit. He said Veitch has alleged violations of his First Amendment rights and other complaints that should be allowed to proceed.

“Although it appears unlikely at the moment, it is impossible to conclude beyond doubt that plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of those claims which would entitle him to relief,” the ruling said.

While that phrasing seemed to cast doubt on the validity of Veitch’s suit, his attorney, Art Schulcz, called the ruling encouraging. He said overturning the motion to dismiss means he can initiate proceedings known as “discovery” to gather other evidence.

Using a World War II analogy, Schulcz compared the progress of the lawsuit to the D-Day invasion. Although the Navy tried to repel its invasion with its motion to dismiss, the failure to do so means Veitch has establish a foothold for further action, the attorney said.

“That’s what a motion to dismiss does, literally drives you off the continent, legally,” said Schulz, who is based in Vienna, Va. “Once you get beyond that, you get into the maneuvering phase. It allows you to develop information and evidence.

“This is bad news for the Navy,” he added. “This means we get in and start talking to people, we get documents and we can ask them questions.”

The Navy is represented by the U.S. Department of Justice, which maintains a policy of not discussing court rulings.

Although Schulcz plans to proceed, he must file an amended complaint by late September. Judge Jackson, who earlier denied a motion for a temporary injunction against the Navy, said some parts of the suit are moot or fail to state a claim.

Though from a traditionally liturgical background, Veitch was ordained by the Reformed Episcopal Church. According to the lawsuit, the theologically conservative denomination regards the Bible as the sole source of inspiration and guidance for Christians.

Filed against various Naval officials and officers, the suit said Veitch was unlawfully discharged from the Navy on Sept. 30 of last year.

It alleges that he was removed for failure to preach “pluralism among religions.” It also claims he was removed at the instigation of his command chaplain and base commander as part of a campaign to punish him for complaining about religious prejudice through approved channels.

The suit said the evidence will show that the Navy persecuted Veitch for his religious faith and practices, censored his religious speech and retaliated against him for complaining about the deprivation of those rights.

In addition, the military coerced him into resigning and continued retaliatory measures after he left, the suit said.

Veitch, who now resides in Jacksonville, N.C., said he was excited over the possibility of moving ahead with his action.

Noting that the judge had remarked during oral arguments that he might be able to prove his case, the former chaplain said he is encouraged that Jackson acknowledged the facts meant his suit couldn’t be thrown out.

“The judge doesn’t know the case in full [view],” Veitch said. “Once we go to discovery, the Navy is going to see how serious the case is. This is the first time an outside party has looked at this and said there may be a case.”

Referring to a similar ruling in San Diego, Calif., that allowed another chaplain’s suit to proceed toward trial, he called the two decisions “a huge victory.”

Earlier this year, Veitch began studies to become a financial adviser overseeing investments, insurance and pension plans for military officers.

He said his dismissal after 13 years of service cost him dearly, including pension, medical and other benefits, and he needs a source of income that will allow him to recover financially.

“Financial elements drove the decision,” he said of leaving the pastorate. “It was very hard, the death of a … vision. It affected my confidence in the clergy. I’ve seen a lot of guys stand on the sidelines and root us on, but not take a stand.”
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  • Ken Walker