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.
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.
According to DMDC data, the Navy employs one liturgical or Catholic chaplain for every 150 Catholic or liturgical service members, but only one evangelical chaplain for every 450 evangelical service members. Attorney Dean Broyles said those numbers show that the chaplain corps policies harm evangelical service members-particularly those serving overseas-with a lack of access to ministers from their own faiths.
Meanwhile, evangelical ministers who do remain on active duty may suffer discrimination in military job assignments, or "detailing," according to a 1995 document known as the Ellis Report. In the Navy, detailing figures critically in an officer's ability to achieve higher rank. If a chaplain isn't detailed to diverse jobs with increasing responsibilities, he or she may be at a disadvantage for promotion.
The Ellis Report examined allegations of discrimination against evangelical chaplains in detailing to key assignments between 1971 and 1994. The finding: Of 119 individuals who occupied those key positions, only 14, or 11.8 percent, were clearly nonliturgical.
Slights in detailing can lead to "nonselection," or being "passed over," for higher rank. A 1997 investigation into the nonselection of Chaplain S.M. Aufderheide to the rank of commander found that two separate promotion boards "may have systematically applied a denominational quota system," promoting liturgical chaplains with poor performance records while passing over Mr. Aufderheide, an evangelical.
After a chaplain is passed over twice, he or she may be forced into early retirement. Southern Baptist Chaplain David Wilder just passed 18 years of service, which means that by law he'll be able to stay on another two years. Stationed with the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Mr. Wilder, a lieutenant commander, has been passed over for promotion five times. He currently serves in a position usually reserved for a junior officer-retaliation, he believes, for his appearance last year on Fox News to discuss his legal case against the Navy chaplaincy.
Mr. Wilder's troubles began in Okinawa in 1992. Then pastor of an on-base Protestant congregation, he led a "General Protestant Worship Service" on Sunday mornings. That is, until an incoming senior chaplain, an Episcopalian, insisted that Mr. Wilder make specific changes to his service-changes that would make it more like Episcopal worship. Based on Navy policy and the First Amendment, Mr. Wilder refused.
But one Sunday morning weeks later, the Episcopal chaplain appeared at the chapel door in vestments. Swinging an incense burner from a chain, a rite of "purification," the senior chaplain proceeded up the aisle to the pulpit, ordered Mr. Wilder out of the chapel, and told the congregation he would be their new pastor. The congregation would receive new worship bulletins, the priest said, and commence "a proper Christian worship service."
Lawsuit plaintiffs allege many similar incidents, including warnings against giving "altar calls" and ending prayers in Jesus' name. Adair co-plaintiff Michael Belt, a Nazarene chaplain, told WORLD he was reprimanded after preaching a sermon that offended a senior officer who was known to clean up his act mainly on Sundays. Mr. Belt had preached that Christians should live out their faith seven days a week. In another case, Armando Torralva, a chaplain endorsed by the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, was reprimanded in Naples for refusing to support a base-wide program that would have distributed birth control to minors without parental knowledge or consent. Mr. Torralva believed the program violated scriptural teaching on parental authority and abstinence before marriage.
Since the lawsuits began in 1999, conditions have improved for some evangelical chaplains. For example, the Navy has restructured chaplain promotion boards in what may be an effort to make them more impartial. Also, more evangelicals are being promoted to higher ranks, and some also report an increase in religious freedom.
But attorneys Schulcz and Broyles both note that none of these changes reflects official changes in Navy policy. Mr. Schulcz points out that there is nothing in writing to keep the Navy from returning to its old ways after litigation is complete.
Meanwhile, dozens of chaplains continue to serve while working for change. "I am in very good company as a passed-over chaplain," Mr. Wilder said. "My best friends, and some of the brightest men I have ever met, are in the same boat with me, and we believe that God has brought us together for the cause of bringing reform to the ministry being provided for our military men and women."