Navy blues

"Navy blues" Continued...

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

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."

Lynn Vincent
Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.


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