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Navy blues

National | RELIGION: Are evangelical chaplains who refuse "to preach pluralism among religions" too "narrow" for the Navy?

Issue: "Sciavo: Saved by the bill," Nov. 1, 2003

SHEATHED IN LILAC CHIFFON, the barefoot bride padded across the grass carpet of a small tropical garden. Her groom, dressed in U.S. Navy crackerjacks, waited near a towering coconut palm, the masts of a dozen yachts reaching for the sky in the harbor behind him. Wedding guests in attendance at the private ceremony behind the Island Palms Hotel in San Diego then listened as Navy Chaplain Patrick Sturm joined the couple in marriage.

"Have Christ as the center of your love," Mr. Sturm told the bride and groom. Later in the ceremony, he explained that God had shown humans how to love by sending His son Jesus Christ as a sacrifice.

It was just the kind of "Jesus talk" that may have cost Mr. Sturm a successful career as a Navy chaplain.

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Mr. Sturm is the plaintiff in Sturm vs. Danzig, a lawsuit that pits the bespectacled, mild-mannered pastor against the United States government. He is one of about three dozen chaplains suing the Navy in at least six separate civil-rights actions. The suits allege religious discrimination against evangelical (the Navy calls them "nonliturgical," although some evangelicals come from the liturgical camp) chaplains in hiring, job assignments, promotions, and the free exercise of religion. Specific allegations include:

The existence within the Navy chaplaincy of a religious patronage system that promotes Roman Catholic and liturgical (or mainline) Protestant chaplains over Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, and other evangelical chaplains.

Systematic discrimination and, sometimes, open hostility by some Roman Catholic and liturgical chaplains against those who conduct nonliturgical or "praise and worship"Ðstyle services.

Chaplain "accession," or hiring, practices that violate the First Amendment by employing denominational quotas.

Career-damaging retaliation by senior mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic chaplains against evangelical chaplains who insist on their right to practice and teach the tenets of their own religions.

Plaintiffs also allege systematic exclusion of evangelical chaplains from positions of Navy-wide influence, and a promotion system that unfairly advances mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic chaplains while passing over evangelicals, ultimately forcing their early retirement.

The Navy, for its part, says none of that is true. In Mr. Sturm's case, military lawyers argued that the Navy does not favor certain religious groups, and that the composition of the chaplain corps, even if unbalanced toward Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant clerics, isn't really at issue; chaplains' services should be spiritually generic, they said.

Last month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court ruling against Mr. Sturm. Although he was advanced to the rank of lieutenant commander after filing suit in 1999 for discrimination in military promotions, he had also sought relief from what he alleges are continuing violations of his free-exercise rights. The 9th Circuit ruled that Mr. Sturm's promotion was all the relief he is entitled to.

While Mr. Sturm considers an appeal, a class-action suit involving similar issues is gaining momentum. This summer, a U.S. district judge allowed expansion of Adair vs. Johnson, which now includes at least 1,400 chaplains who served since 1977.

"What's really behind these cases, in my opinion, is the same thing that's going on in the broader culture," said Mr. Sturm's attorney Dean Broyles. The suits are not denominational battles, he said. "Rather they are a battle between theological liberals and conservatives. Liberal chaplains seem to believe they can minister to service members more effectively because they consider themselves less 'narrow' and 'dogmatic' than conservative chaplains."

The case of former Chaplain Phillip Veitch may prove his point. Mr. Veitch is from the Reformed Episcopal Church, a denomination that is both biblically conservative and subscribes to a liturgical worship style. In 1997, he reported for duty to Naples, Italy. According to a legal complaint filed in 2000, his Catholic supervisor, Captain Ronald Buchmiller, immediately limited Mr. Veitch's duties and began criticizing his teaching of such Reformed Protestant doctrines as "sola scriptura" and the priesthood of believers. In response, Mr. Veitch in 1998 filed what the military calls an "equal opportunity" (EO) complaint, alleging religious discrimination.

But the EO investigator, who later admitted he was unaware of a Navy regulation that states chaplains may practice and teach according to their own faith traditions, found Mr. Veitch guilty of failure to "preach pluralism among religions." Subsequently, the base commander removed Mr. Veitch from preaching. The chaplain was later subjected to disciplinary proceedings, and ultimately resigned from the Navy.

Art Schulcz, who is Mr. Veitch's attorney and also lead counsel in the Adair suit, said the overall composition of the chaplain corps is ripe for reform. According to a 2000 Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC) report, less than one-third of active-duty sailors and marines who expressed a religious preference said they were from liturgical denominations, including Catholic. But two-thirds of military chaplains are from those backgrounds. Meanwhile, the opposite is true of evangelical chaplains and service members: While two-thirds of active-duty service members who express a religious preference said they are evangelicals, only one in three chaplains is an evangelical.

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