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USMC chaplain who took a stand says Navy is retaliating

INDIAN HEAD, Md. (BP)–A Marine chaplain involved in a lawsuit alleging discrimination against evangelicals claims the U.S. Navy is retaliating against him for speaking out against its religious policies.

Navy chaplains serve in Navy, Marine Corps (an operating force of the Navy) and Coast Guard commands.

Lt. Cmdr. Gary Stewart said he is being transferred on short notice as retribution for challenging a statement by former Chief of Chaplains (and current U.S. Senate Chaplain) Barry Black at a congressional meeting last June.

Stewart has filed a complaint with the Department of Defense’s inspector general, asking for an investigation of alleged illegal retaliation.

The chaplain said the opposition stems from his challenge to Black and his (Stewart’s) efforts to overturn a 2006 regulation establishing non-sectarianism as the Navy’s preferred religion.

The exchange between Black and Stewart reportedly occurred during a meeting in South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham’s office last June.

According to Stewart’s complaint, the meeting was called to discuss pending legislation to assure that evangelicals could pray in public according to their conscience.

A joint congressional conference later directed the Air Force and Navy to rescind 2006 guidelines preventing chaplains from praying according to their faith in public venues, according to Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who invited Stewart to the meeting.

When Black reportedly said he knew nothing about evangelicals being censured in the past for praying in Jesus’ name, Stewart’s lawsuit states that he immediately responded to that statement.

Stewart pointed out that his endorser, Bible Churches Chaplaincy, had notified Black about his situation at one duty station and told Black that he (Stewart) had documents to prove his point.

The remarks concerned Great Lakes Naval Training Station. In a lawsuit filed last year by 41 current and former chaplains, Stewart claims he was reprimanded for praying in Jesus’ name and relieved of his duties there.

“After the meeting in Senator Graham’s office concluded … Black immediately walked over to me and informed me that I did not have a letter with his signature on it,” Stewart said in his complaint.

“When I said that I did, he again told me that I did not have a letter with his signature on it. I again informed him that I did. I believe that these multiple statements were a threat.”

However, Black said he knew nothing about any action taken against Stewart.

According to a spokesman for his office, the Senate chaplain has had no contact with Stewart or the Navy since the meeting in Graham’s office.

“Nobody’s talked to me about anything,” Black said.

The Navy’s chief of chaplains, Adm. Robert Burt -– himself an evangelical -– had no comment on the allegations.

“Because of the current investigation and legal litigation that’s underway, due to the complaint and lawsuit filed by Lieutenant Commander Stewart, it would be inappropriate for Admiral Burt to comment at this time,” Navy spokesman Lt. Tommy Crosby said.

Stewart’s complaint alleges waste, fraud, abuse and violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Navy’s retaliation falls outside the scope of any legitimate authority or government purpose, the complaint states.

The complaint recounts that five months after the meeting, Stewart’s commanding officer told him the Navy had issued a non-punitive letter of reprimand, although the chaplain said he has never seen it.

In early December, Stewart said he was contacted by a commander from the Chaplain Corps’ detailer’s office, informing him he was being transferred to a Memphis-area base, Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington, Tenn., and to report by Jan. 31.

The officer told him his present post in Maryland, at the Chemical Biological incident Response Force in Indian Head, was a lesser priority, even though it is an operational billet “providing for the continuance of the U.S. Congress in case of a terrorist attack,” the complaint noted.

When Stewart called the chaplain in suburban Memphis to ask about the urgency of his posting, the other chaplain acted surprised and said he had no idea why the Navy would send another evangelical there, the complaint recounted.

Not only did the suddenness of the orders come as a surprise, Stewart said their one-sided nature is contrary to the Navy’s normal procedures of filling critical requirements.

Stewart said the military ordinarily contacts individuals to notify them of the nature of the emergency and inquire whether there are any personal or family considerations that would prevent them from accepting the transfer.

In his case, Stewart says he is unable to move his family because he recently moved his mother-in-law to an assisted living facility closer to a home they are renting until he qualifies for retirement in 2008.

The 51-year-old chaplain recounts that Congressman Jones’ office informed him that the chief of naval operations’ office cited three reasons for the transfer: 1) the June 6 meeting, 2) the Memphis-area post is essential (even though Stewart says no one is deployed from there) and 3) to provide him with professional mentoring.

“Quantico is much closer and would be a no-cost move if professional mentoring is really the concern,” Stewart says in the lawsuit. “The senior chaplain [in Tennessee] thought I was coming there to retire or because of some medical issue. He had no idea, at the time of my call to him, that he had been designated as my professional mentor.”

Not only is there no need for him at the base near Memphis, his replacement will be leaving a chapel in Norfolk, Va., which will be left without a chaplain to fill that post, Stewart says.

“What right does the Navy have to take money from my family, harm [them] by taking me away from them for no urgent cause … or send me to a billet where I am, in truth, not needed?” Stewart asks.

Stewart, in his suit, questions whether he will be able to preach in chapel services without fear of a “plant” from another faith group complaining he is not pluralistic enough in his sermons -– which he said happened at Great Lakes and in Naples, Italy.

The chaplain alleges the harassment is rooted in the Navy’s desire to keep Stewart away from Capitol Hill, where he has access to congressional representatives and senators and because of his challenge to Black and his (Stewart’s) involvement in reversing an unconstitutional policy.

“These orders … are nothing more than the [chief of Naval operations’] attempt to punish me for being a whistleblower,” Stewart’s complaint states.

The Marine chaplain is one of 66 evangelicals involved in legal action against the Navy, which they allege discriminates against them in the practice of their faith and in promotions and other matters.

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker