Evangelical chaplains sue U.S. Navy for discriminating against them

Catholics and high Protestants get preference?

This is the joke among the Navy's evangelical chaplains. "Question: What do you have to do to get promoted in the U.S. Navy?

"Answer: If you're a Roman Catholic, you've got to be able to walk or chew gum.

"If you're High-Church Protestant -- say, Episcopalian -- you have to be able to walk and chew gum. If you're Low Church -- say, Baptist -- you have to be able to walk and chew gum on water."

Retired chaplain Commander Ronald G. Wilkins, who's telling the joke, laughs out loud. But the Oceanside resident and lifelong Baptist plans to file a lawsuit in San Diego's U.S. District Court that is no joke. The suit will accuse the Navy Chaplain Corps of shutting out the more populist lower-church branches of Christianity in favor of High-Church Catholics and Protestants. Such favoritism, Wilkins claims, contravenes the First Amendment requirement that "Congress shall make no law respecting establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

"If we do it," says Wilkins's lawyer, Gerald Hokstad, "it will be very big. We're taking on the United States government and the United States Navy. And if we win against the Chaplain Corps, it will be a first."

Until now, the 900-strong Chaplain Corps, serving the Navy and Marine Corps' 549,000 men and women, has been left in "benign neglect," Wilkins says, by the Navy establishment. "They think [the Chaplain Corps] can regulate itself fairly and share the influence of the different religions equitably. That's far from the case."

He spelled out his views recently in a letter to Senator John Glenn during confirmation hearings for the present chief of chaplains, Admiral A. Byron Holderby, a mainline Lutheran. "The monopoly is always a power bloc of Roman Catholics and various nonevangelical Protestants. The power bloc retains power through controlling the two flag [admiral] billets. The two admirals control promotions, assignments, evaluations, retentions, and funding; and [thereby] enforce compliance to their religious agendas and philosophies."

He says that the government has been dangerously skirting the First Amendment ever since 1977, when he claims New York's Cardinal John J. O'Connor, then a Chaplain Corps rear-admiral, persuaded the secretary of the Navy to "condone and implement policies designed for the Navy to uniquely favor the Roman Catholic church.... A Roman Catholic would always be one of the two chaplain flag officers (admirals)...and 40 percent of promotion board membership would always be Roman Catholic."

"Fact is, the leadership of the Navy has been a religious monopoly of Roman Catholic and various nonevangelical Protestants for a long time," says Wilkins. "I represent a large segment who haven't had a voice."

What particularly irks him is that the top jobs -- such as Naval Academy chaplain, director of the Navy chaplain school, or chairman of the Pacific and Atlantic fleets -- or the two admiral-level jobs of Chief and deputy Chief of the Chaplain Corps, go largely to Catholics and the liberal wings of such Protestant denominations as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans.

Much is based in the old, not-so-admirable traditions of the Navy, says Wilkins. "That's our track record in the Navy. It is the last to get on board. That was true with the racial things, the ethnic things -- and religions. We're very, very traditional, and what's caught the Navy chaplaincy flatfooted is that there's been a fairly significant religious revolution in America in the last 30 years."

"The Episcopalians dominated the Navy Chaplain Corps for 100 years, from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s," agrees retired Navy Chaplain (Captain) George W. Linzey, 46, of Chula Vista, who is backing Wilkins's crusade. "Even the line [mainstream] officers could not make admiral unless they were Catholic, Episcopal, or Masons. But [the] Vietnam [War] changed several dynamics. Number one, in 1974, the Supreme Court said you don't have to go to church if you're in the military, which means that Naval Academy graduates were no longer only either Episcopal or Catholic."

But it was the '60s themselves, Linzey says, that really threatened the old order. "Free forms of worship, informal rather than formal worship, began to grow. Pentecostal, fundamentalist, Disciples of Christ, Baptist, and other charismatic denominations [caught on] like wildfire in the '60s and '70s, while the mainline churches began dying. Episcopal, Presbyterian, etc. So now you have young officers and young sailors filling the ranks of the military who are what we call low church. Evangelicals, Baptists, Independents, Pentecostals. [According to Department of Defense data] 54 percent of the entire Navy is Low-Church Protestant; 24 percent is Catholic; 14 percent is High-Church Protestant -- Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Congregational -- Jewish and Muslim are 1 to 2 percent, and the rest are mainly the unchurched."

Despite this evidence of a sea change in its constituency, Wilkins says the Chaplain Corps brass hasn't budged. "It [sticks with] its very formal, very staid, very dignified General Protestant service, but the kids that we're bringing in [to the Navy] are from your free church and nonliturgical, and they don't relate to this. And that's shown by the frankly abysmal attendance in our chapels.

"Yet the policy of the Navy now is that the proper denominational balance [of chaplains] is thirds. One third Catholic, one third liturgical [High-Church Protestant], and the last third 'nonliturgical or other.' Jewish, Muslim, or any other. The Catholics' problem is they can't fill their 33 percent. They don't have enough priests. The Liturgicals can fill their third up with chaplains, but they don't have much constituency, so they like to preach to the Baptists. That target of thirds is unconstitutional. The government is favoring the liturgical [High-Church] faith with over-representation of chaplains. They're repressing the nonliturgical [Low-Church] faith by under-representing them and by not allowing them to have denominational services."

There are other troubling statistics: 8 of the 17 most influential jobs in the Chaplain Corps are held by High-Church Protestants. Five are held by Catholics and only four by Low-Church Protestants -- the evangelicals, who represent the majority.

What's more, says Linzey, nearly all admirals appointed chief of the Chaplain Corps have been High-Church Protestant: Episcopalian types. Of the four exceptions, three were Catholics, and only one has been Low-Church Protestant. And this was during Vietnam, Wilkins says, a time when the expected choices were suddenly eager to seek retirement.

"It begs the question," says Linzey. "Why has there only been one Low-Church Chief of Chaplains in the entire 225-year history of the Navy Chaplain Corps?"

For Wilkins, this lawsuit is to complete unfinished business. He feels he knows more than most Navy chaplains what the "kids" feel. He started off at 17 as a sailor and was one of 22 selected from among 12,000 applicants to receive a commission. As a lieutenant he spent a hellish year in Apocalypse Now-style patrols on the rivers in Vietnam and only then became a chaplain. That's when he ran up against the High-Church mindset.

"Vietnam probably made my commitment more intense. My problem is I never could keep my mouth shut. I've always seen it from the consumers' point of view. When I came in as a chaplain, I kept saying, 'We really need to address my situation, [services for] these Baptist kids.' And that turned out to be the wrong thing to say."

Wilkins also loudly objected to the fact that all Protestants were expected to share preachers of different faiths, while Roman Catholics always had their own church and preachers.

He was twice passed over by selection boards. Twelve years ago, he filed suit against them in San Diego's U.S. federal district court.

That 1985 suit, Wilkins says, brought out everything that was and is wrong with the Navy Chaplain Corps. "Here we have the government, which constitutionally cannot prefer one religion over another, yet [mandates] a Catholic service everywhere and a Baptist service nowhere. You will not find, in any command's religious program in the Department of the Navy, a Sunday morning Baptist denominational worship service.

"I had a senior chaplain who thought it was his job and his responsibility -- and this was not unique to him -- to make sure that these new chaplains [like me] had the right ecumenical attitude. And here I'm saying again and again that we should be having an [exclusively] Baptist service for all these kids.

"At the end of 1985 I was supposed to be thrown out of the Navy. December 31, midnight," he says with a laugh. But instead of accepting his fate, Wilkins lodged his complaint with San Diego's federal Judge Gordon Thompson and claimed that because the then chief of the Chaplain Corps, John O'Connor, had permanently appointed two Catholics on the five-officer chaplain selection board by agreement with the secretary of the Navy, this constituted "excessive entanglement" by the government. "I was twice passed over by an unconstitutional board," he told Judge Thompson. "The government was excessively [favoring] the Catholic church.

"This happened less than 24 hours before I was to be tossed out of the Navy. Luckily, Judge Thompson [quickly] took the approach that the government was 'excessively entangled.' "

So instead of tossing him out, the Navy asked Wilkins for a deal. If he would drop his suit, they would reduce the number of Catholics on the selection board from two to one and "look at" the custom of always having a Catholic admiral as one of the top two "flag officer" jobs.

Wilkins was not appeased. "Why is a government giving the Catholic church a 'quota' of one flag officer? They're not doing that for the Baptists," he says.

But because he couldn't afford to go on, Wilkins accepted the Navy's deal. He dropped the suit, was reinstated, promoted, and sent off to the East Coast.

He was later sent to Cuba's Guantanamo Bay and continued preaching in the Baptists' "expository style," based solidly on the Bible, at a chapel across the bay on the far side of the base. That's when he says his troubles returned. He was too popular. He started drawing too many sailors to his chapel. "We went from about a dozen people up to around 100, and that was unacceptable to the command chaplain. So he broke up my service. He emptied it out.... I went to the commanding officer and requested to have a Sunday-morning Bible church service for these people. That thing became bigger than the main service. And I got thrown off the island. Sent to a reserve base."

Soon after, Wilkins was handed "involuntary early retirement."

He says he's not the only evangelical chaplain to be treated this way. "This protracted persecution of evangelical worshippers ...demonstrates the Navy chaplaincy's anti-evangelical agenda and its illegal perpetuation of ecumenism through its own peculiar General Protestant religion," he wrote to Senator Glenn.

Now Wilkins has decided to fight one more battle. "I have never had peace about [my 1985 case]. I still am concerned for 'Snuffy' out in the middle of the ocean, who wants to know what the Bible says. I want these Baptist kids, these evangelical kids to have some place to go.... The General Protestant [shared] approach used to be fine, but time has passed us by. It just has. The Bible is the real Mason-Dixon line. Southerners hold the Bible up the way Catholics hold the Virgin Mary. Kind of untouchable. I just want customer satisfaction. That's guaranteed in the Constitution. And I don't think the court will accept what's going on. I think the Lord wants me to do something. Mainly, I want the selection boards to be manned by line [mainstream] officers, not chaplains."

"[Our theme will be] the way the system is run allows certain religions to gain power or advantage over others," says Wilkins's lawyer Hokstad. "It could work the other way too: it could be [Wilkins's] religion that somehow got in there and got the power. That's not right either. If you're a religious chaplain, and you pick another chaplain, wouldn't you have a natural bias to your own religion? That's human nature. In order to eliminate that problem, promotion should be from neutral persons, not biased religious persons. Which is how other branches of the service do it."

And yes, says Hokstad, they'll be suing the Navy not just for injunctive relief to get them to change their policies, but also for money. "Money is the only thing that gets people's attention in our society," he says.

Hokstad and Wilkins are looking for help from the Rutherford Institute, a conservative think tank. Hokstad says he isn't sure yet that Wilkins, as a retired chaplain, has "standing" to file the suit, and that he'd rather have a client who is still active in the Chaplain Corps. But Wilkins is undeterred.

"My plea to the court and everybody else," says Wilkins, "is, 'Would you please come keep an eye on us religious people?' We all think we're right and we're doing God a favor when we get rid of the opposition. And that's just not the way to run the chaplaincy. We have been hurt very much by 'benign neglect,' by the line officers. They have just thought too highly of [the Chaplain Corps] and have allowed a monopolization of the Navy chaplaincy."

Captain-Select Marty Stahl, Regional Chaplain of the Navy's Southwest Region, does not agree. "I have found an integrity among chaplains who sit on [selection] boards," he says, adding that chaplains are selected according to the number of sailors in each faith. "I could care less what denomination somebody is. My only concern is whether or not this person is doing innovative ministry to help sailors."

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