Chaplains sue Navy, claiming religious-liberty violations

Thursday, April 20, 2000

A group of Navy chaplains has challenged in federal court the service’s system of promoting chaplains as unconstitutionally favoring chaplains from some Christian denominations over evangelical clergy.

Represented by Arthur A. Schulcz, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, 11 evangelical chaplains say the Navy’s system of hiring and promoting chaplains is hostile toward them. They say the system infringes the free exercise of religion of non-liturgical Navy chaplains. The Navy uses “non-liturgical” to describe Christian denominations that do not use a formal liturgy or order in their worship. Liturgical denominations include those faith groups that do use a set liturgy or order of worship, such as Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians.

In his 50-plus page complaint filed late last month in a D.C. federal court, Schulcz details an “unconstitutional religious quota system” used by the Navy to “keep non-liturgical chaplains from continuing on active duty, thus assuring they would not be considered for promotion and minimizing their future influence.” Schulcz argues that the policy has “resulted in the over-representation of liturgical Protestant chaplains and the under-representation of non-liturgical Christians in the Navy Chaplain program.”

Citing a 1998 Armed Forces report on religious preferences, Schulcz notes that of the 871 Navy chaplains, 33% are from liturgical denominations, even though only 9% of the Navy’s religious population falls within the liturgical category. According to the complaint, most sailors and Marines adhere to non-liturgical denominations, such as Baptist, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic.

“This is not about denominations, this about a system that has become corrupt to the point where its practices undermine the very purpose for its existence: to provide for the religious free exercise of sailors and marines,” Schulcz said. “The Chaplains Corps is operated like a religious spoils system. The First Amendment says you cannot create a situation where a religion or denomination could be advanced or hindered.”

In selecting chaplains, the Navy adopted in the late 1980s “The Thirds” policy that divides chaplain allocations between Catholics, who received one third; liturgical Protestants, who received a second third; and “Others,” which include non-liturgical Christians, who make up the last third. “The Thirds” policy, according to the complaint, is used by the Navy’s promotion-boards and has resulted in unconstitutionally limiting the number of non-liturgical chaplains in the service.

“Although liturgical Protestant chaplains represent approximately 9% of the Navy religious population, they allegedly received 33% of the allocations and were routinely selected for retention beyond their initial three year tour of service in numbers disproportionate to their denominational membership percentage in the Navy,” the complaint states.

Liturgical Protestants also dominate the Navy’s promotion boards, Schulcz says, and the denominations of all candidates for promotion or retention are made known to the boards.

“Catholics and liturgical Protestants have dominated Navy chaplain boards despite the fact that these traditions represent less than a third of the religious preference of Navy personnel,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit also claims that evangelicals and other non-liturgical Protestants have faced forced retirements and harsher disciplinary actions and have been “criticized and berated for preaching and teaching on truths of the Christian faith and their specific tradition.”

Schulcz says the Navy has “established two systems of discipline and administration, one for liturgical traditions, and one for non-liturgical traditions.” The complaint states that a Catholic priest accused of adultery was allowed to remain on duty while being investigated while a non-liturgical Christian chaplain who was accused of child abuse was stripped of his active duty and not allowed back in the service despite being exonerated.

The Navy has yet to respond in court to the lawsuit, but in a prepared statement defended its selection and retention system for chaplains.

“The Navy prides itself on promoting freedom of religion as well as practicing it,” said Cmdr. Frank Thorpe. “The Navy chaplains from more than 110 faith groups provide spiritual leadership to our sailors in a free and open fashion.”

Schulcz cites in his complaint an internal report by Capt. J.N. Stafford, which was issued in 1997 after an allegation of religious discrimination, as evidence that the Navy’s chaplain system is constitutionally flawed.

Stafford wrote that the 1997 and 1998 chaplain promotion boards indicated “that the board may have systematically applied a denominational quota system,” and that “physical fitness standards that would have kept line officers from being promoted were apparently waived or ignored for certain liturgical chaplains who were nonetheless promoted.”

Schulcz said the Navy did not respond Stafford’s report. “If you are a charismatic, regardless of your record, you will not get promoted.”

The chaplains’ lawsuit asks the federal court to declare unconstitutional the Navy’s system of promoting and retaining chaplains and enter a permanent injunction against its operation.